A week ago, I showed this photo from the SF Green Festival and asked what was wrong with this picture. No one offered the specific answer I was looking for, but many gave great partial attempts.
Ken O. noticed that all the bin liners are biodegradable, and he’s right. In fact, they are all corn-based BioBags. Lara S. gave an excellent answer, “the plastic bags are unnecessary and shouldn’t be there (compostable or not… it’s a waste).” If these bins were at our homes, most of us could do without any liners at all. Michael and I don’t use any kind of garbage bags at our house these days… compostable or not.
But for a big 3-day event where there is quite a bit of solid waste (despite being a zero-waste event!) it’s more practical to swap out some kind of liner than to move many, many bins around.
So here’s what happened: these green BioBags were the first thing I noticed when I entered the convention hall. A green BioBag in each bin. And of course, my assumption was that the BioBag would travel with whatever it contained: a BioBag to the compost facility, a BioBag to the recycler, and a BioBag to the landfill. And my biggest concern was that BioBags should not go to the landfill.
Now, this opinion is the exact reverse of what I thought over a year ago when I first started Fake Plastic Fish. In fact, I argued vociferously that BioBags were better than re-used plastic grocery bags for garbage. My reasoning was that since BioBags are made from a renewable resource, it’s less harmful to landfill them (since we can grow more corn) than to landfill plastic bags which are made from non-renewable fossil fuels.
Of course, I now understand that in anaerobic landfill conditions, bio-based bags will break down and create methane gas, which is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. BioBags are not benign in the landfill, as I thought, but probably worse than plastic bags. (Not to mention the fossil fuels used to grow that “renewable” corn.)
So, back to Green Festival. Before checking out any of the booths; before finding any of my friends; before getting food (I was starving), I set out to find out who was in charge of this mess and set them straight. I was as self-righteous two weeks ago about BioBags not being landfilled as I was over a year ago that they should be!
And when I did find the culprits out back, I was happily put in my place.
A whole team was out there removing the contents from the green BioBags, sorting it into huge containers, then reusing the BioBags if possible or putting them in with the compost. In fact, when I asked the guy in charge about the bags, he seemed as aghast as I was at the thought of landfilling them. “Oh, no!” he said, “They’re worse in the landfill than plastic bags!” And, of course, the bags would not be sent to the recycling center to clog up the sorting machines either.
I’ve grown to love being wrong. I love how this blog constantly gives me a chance to show my ignorance. I love the feedback from you guys and the “Aha!” moments I have (as Oprah would say) when I realize I’ve been up to my self-righteous act again. It’s how I learn… not just environmental information but where my own blind spots are. Man, I have a lot of them.
So maybe there is no right answer about landfills and plastic bags and garbage. The best solution I know of is to reduce our waste as much as possible so we don’t have to make these kinds of choices in the first place. To me, even thought they’re not going to the landfill, it’s sad to see so many brand new bags used for a weekend and composted. We’re moving towards zero waste, but we have a long way to go. Still, it’s a fallible imperfect perfect world, with each of us doing our best, getting better only as quickly as we can.