In response to yesterday’s post on Eco-runners collecting litter in BioBags, an anonymous commenter had this to say:
If you’re planning on landfilling non-reusable, non-recyclable materials, there really isn’t any point in using compostable bags to do it in. Organic material doesn’t compost or properly biodegrade in landfills. It breaks down anaerobically, producing methane.
It would probably better to reuse one of those pernicious plastic shopping bags, which would ensure that its marine-life killing career would be diverted to a landfill and save the biodegradable, compostable bags for an application that will actually result in their decomposition (like collecting compostable waste) instead of just making us feel better.
I responded with a comment of my own, but I’d like to expand on the issue with a few more thoughts on why using biodegradable bags for garbage is preferable to using plastic grocery bags.
Plastic grocery bags are made from polyethylene. As far as I can tell, polyethylene has not been shown to leach toxins like other plastics, but that fact alone does not make it a good candidate for the landfill. Polyethylene is made from ethylene gas derived from nonrenewable natural gas or crude oil. And once made, it doesn’t go away. Like all petroleum-based plastics, polyethylene will last many human lifetimes without biodegrading, whether we put it in a landfill or leave it out in the rain.
What is the point of extracting a non-renewable, super long-lasting resource only to use it once and throw it away? Disposable products are a ridulous waste of such a potentially useful material. The commenter suggests that we can divert plastic bags from our waterways by burying them in landfills. I have a better idea.
We should be reusing and recycling the plastic bags that currently exist. And by recycling, I don’t mean creating new disposable plastic bags from old ones. While doing so might prolong their life a little bit, it’s a short-sighted solution at best. There are currently markets for creating lumber out of the resin derived from plastic bags. Let’s take that increasingly scarce material and build things that are meant to last. That’s the best way to keep them out of the mouths of sea turtles.
And as for biodegradable bags not composting in a landfill, that may be true. But plastic bags certainly will not. And whereas petroleum-based plastic is a non-renewable resource, organic materials such as corn and sugar are grown and harvested in a season.
Now, I am not suggesting that because we can create bags and other disposables from organic materials, we should continue our mass consumption of disposable products. Growing field crops takes its own toll on the earth. I believe that we still need to reduce our waste as much as possible.
But in terms of eco-running, which is the context in which this discussion began, picking up litter on the street requires some kind of container. And if the street sweeper is not doing it, and if the only people who care about collecting the plastic waste before it enters storm drains and does its damage are a few idealistic runners with bags, then let those bags be made from renewable, biodegradable materials and save the petroleum for the long haul.