Every year I visit the San Francisco Green Festival and wander up and down the aisles of vendor booths, looking for interesting plastic-free products but always finding a ton of plastic packaging. Organic foods packaged in plastic. Natural drinks in plastic bottles. Compostable products shrink-wrapped in plastic. But this year, my jaw hit the floor when I stumbled across a booth I’d never have expected to see at the Green Festival: Ziploc.
Why would a brand of plastic bags have a booth at the Green Festival? Because they have partnered with Recyclebank to reward people who pledge to take back their Ziploc bags to grocery store recycle bins to be recycled. Notice: Ziploc is not actually taking back the bags. They are rewarding people who go to the Ziploc page on the Recyclebank website, enter a code from the Ziploc box, and promise to take the bags back to the store.
What happens to plastic bags that are returned to grocery store recycle bins? Most of them are made into composite lumber for outdoor decking and furniture. When I asked the rep at the Ziploc booth what they would be recycled into, she said, “Things like park benches.” So, in other words, Ziploc will continue to use virgin plastic resin to create new bags, and the old ones will be downcycled into products that cannot be further recycled.
Of course, my knee jerk reaction was to freak out. Immediately, I took a picture of the booth with my phone and uploaded it to an Eco Women Facebook group I belong to, along with the comment, “Ack! Zip Lock has a booth at the Green Festival!” (I was so frazzled, I didn’t even spell the name correctly.) I didn’t think I even needed to explain why this was making me crazy. I figured that in this group, it would be obvious. And at first, the comments were what I expected:
And one member, Jenn Savedge from The Green Parent, wrote, “This is exactly why I stopped going to the Green Festival. I just don’t get how plastic bags can be considered green.”
I figured we would all just agree on this point and that would be the end of it. But the next comment stopped us in our smug little tracks. Diane Hoffmaster, who blogs at Turning the Clock Back One Ecofriendly Step At A Time, wrote something surprising:
again, you have to look at it from the average person’s perspective. Buying in bulk and putting in individual ziploc bags that you reuse is more eco friendly than buying individual bags of goldfish. same with using their reusable snack containers. Also, the SCJ company is in the process of building 2 of the largest wind turbines in the US to power their facility. When they are done those turbines will provide 100% of the electrical power used at that location. All ziploc bags are BPA and dioxin free. I would encourage people to consider that MOST people are not as green as this group and even if a ‘traditional’ company isn’t 100% green that doesnt mean they should be stomped on for what they ARE doing to help.
Stephanie Moram from Good Girl Gone Green disagreed:
I am sorry but plastic is not environmentally friendly and has no business at a green festival. No kidding the average person is not as green as this group. But if the average person keeps thinking these companies are green they wont change.
Okay, but if plastic has no business at a Green Festival — a sentiment I heartily agree with — then why are there so many food products in plastic packaging being sold there? Why pick on Ziploc when all the food companies are doing it? Lisa Nelsen-Woods from Condo Blues made a great point:
Hi my name is Lisa and I use Ziplock bags in my freezer because it is small. I wash and reuse them because my Husband insists we have them since the day I moved in with him. They allow us to do green things like buy in bulk and reduce waste. We had the same box for a couple of years because we use containers more often but it would be a lie to say they aren’t a tool in our low waste high cooking from scratch arsenal.
Perhaps if people eschew all the “natural” and “organic” plastic-packaged food and instead use a few Ziploc bags to buy from bulk bins, and then if they wash and reuse them over and over instead of throwing them away, Ziplocs are a greener option. But those are a lot of if’s. So then, the question is, does the fact that Ziploc bags can be used in a less wasteful way mean they will be used that way? Does it make them a green product worthy of having a booth at the Green Festival? Do most Ziploc bags get washed and reused? My husband Michael still uses plastic bags that he washes and hangs to dry over the sink. And there area certainly frugal people who reuse them as a way to save money. But I’ve seen many, many more people in my own circle of family and friends (and I’m not naming names), who simply toss them in the trash.
Hold on a minute…
Getting back to the actual Ziploc booth at the Green Festival… nowhere was there information about washing and reusing Ziploc bags in the first place. The company was not there to tout their reuse (which would reduce sales of the product) but to encourage downcycling into secondary products (which does nothing to decrease sales of plastic bags.) What’s more, reusing plastic isn’t the healthiest thing to do in the first place. Plastics contain all kinds of additives–even if they are BPA-free– and these additives can leach out into foods the more the plastic is subjected to stress. So is reusing Ziploc bags even a wise thing to do?
Nancy Nathan Baldwin from Surviving and Thriving on Pennies pointed all the alternatives to plastic baggies:
Personally I them like a plague. I have avoided plastic by using glass or metal. Even my girls don’t have plastic in their lunches. Fabric bags, small mason jars and stainless steel containers. Everytime I see trash on the school grounds here, its 99% of the time ziplock bags. Makes me sick. I avoid them in the freezer by using large glass jars for things like produce and berries. My meat is wrapped in paper in 1lb sizes. I thaw one out and use 1/2 lb per meal. Put the other 1/2 lb in a glass jar in the fridge for the next meal. I can recycle the paper. I’m team Beth Terry or at least try my hardest. Its rubbing off on my kids now and I love it
And Danielle Richardet from It Starts With Me echoed Nancy’s point about Ziploc bag litter, saying:
I don’t think that plastic baggies are “green” even if they can be recycled. One thing that I can say is that from my perspective of doing many many beach cleanups, I pick up SO many zip-lock baggies on thebeach (shoot, go to a park after there’s been a picnic and you’ll be guaranteed to find a few.) I agree that some people may use them over and over again… but MOST people aren’t. Just look at the way kids throw them away when they’re finished with their lunches at school. Besides if they weren’t meant to be a disposable product they wouldn’t be sold in boxes of 100+.
Danielle sent me a bunch of photos of zip top bag litter (note that Ziploc is a trademark and all of these bags may not be actual Ziploc brand) she’s collected from the beach to prove her point. I made them into a little slideshow. Click image to advance through the slideshow.
So questions remain:
1) Will Ziploc’s campaign to educate consumers about recycling Ziploc bags at least help to reduce plastic pollution on the beach?
2) And is that enough to earn them the privilege of having their own booth at the Green Festival? Or does their presence imply an endorsement of plastic bags from Green America?
3) Should big corporations (Ziploc is owned by SC Johnson) be endorsed and promoted by environmental organizations and green bloggers for the green steps they take even if their products have other negative environmental impacts or if they own other product lines that are environmentally destructive? How can we reward companies for moving in the right direction and still push them to go further? As Diane Hoffmaster pointed out, big corporations have a vastly larger reach than we green bloggers do. “I DO like to see companies like SCJ try because then they reach that 95 % of the population who wasn’t even bothering to try.” She also pointed out other steps SC Johnson has taken to reduce its environmental impact.
This is a constant dilemma for me… wanting to show support for big companies’ green initiatives but at the same time wanting to support small, independent companies with my dollars and soap box (this blog.) How do you think we can strike a balance?