Friday, June 12th, 2009 | Author:  | 20,443 views - starting Aug 9/09

as litter, plastic bags are especially harmful for wildlife, which may become caught and entangled in whole or torn bags … some animals may also accidentally ingest and suffocate on bags that are mistakenly taken for prey … plastic bags also choke plants, shading them from essential sunlight and sealing them off from the carbon dioxide they respire … keep in mind that plants (and the microorganisms upon which they are dependent) are the vital foundation of almost all ecosystems …

several solutions exist to mitigate the environmental detriment caused by plastic bags…

BIODEGRADABLE BAGS

– manufactured from plant starch and cellulose sources of hydrocarbons, these bags can have a lifespan of approximately 6 months to 2 or more years once they are exposed to soil microbes under suitable environmental conditions …

– corn, potatoes, soy, tapioca, and grains such as wheat are the main industrial sources for some of today’s biodegradable bags made of polylactide “bio-plastic” …

PROS =

– biodegradability … the fact that these bags don’t persist in the environment once they are exposed to the right conditions means that ecosystems, including human habitats and waste land fills, will be spared from accumulating plastic bag debris that affects virtually every level of the food chain … the planet needs more human waste to be biodegradable instead of synthetic, inert debris that persists in terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems for decades (centuries?) …

– these bags will actually serve as ‘food’ for terrestrial and aquatic microorganisms … depending on the ecosystem and the amount of biodegradable bags present, this could be a good or a bad thing … but i like to be optimistic, so i’ll include it as a “pro” …

– for communities who have municipal food waste collection, community gardens, or community vermicomposts, these bags may be ideal for storage and transportation of organic waste (provided no toxic substances such as dyes, etc. are included in or on the bag material) …

– great for picking up pet poop …

CONS =

– while producing man-made materials that biodegrade are a stupdenous idea, biodegradable bags (and other items) still require energy and natural resources to manufacture …

– if these bags are not exposed to the ideal conditions, they may not biodegrade … landfills do not always provide the necessary conditions for these bags to decompose …

– there are currently no regulations for manufacture, and some materials classified as biodegradable may actually leave a toxic residue upon break down (see this post for more info) …

– usually, the raw materials for these bags are food crops … diverting precious food resources from hungry mouths to produce biodegradable bags has humanitarian and social implications that not everyone believes are justified …

– some companies have overcome this drawback by using non-food plant crops (e.g., switchgrass, Panicum virgatum) as raw materials … this is certainly an improvement, especially because most often these plants can grow on non-arable land, don’t require fertilizers or pesticides for growth, don’t displace labour from the already diminishing agricultural work force, and don’t create competition between food resources and the bio-plastics or bio-fuel markets ….

– these bags are not recyclable and may hinder the process of recycling synthetic plastics if they end up at the recycling plant …

– the short life span compared to some polyethylene plastic bags (e.g., HDPE; see this post) may necessitate higher production output to meet demand …

– because these bags are biodegradable, they may not be reused as frequently as they potentially could be … people may unconsciously treat these bags as “litter-free” and “safe-for-the-environment” alternatives that can be carelessly disposed of, guilt free …

– not all biodegradable bags are 100% biodegradable … some are made from a combination of plant cellulose and plastic; the former biodegrades while the latter simply fragments into smaller pieces and persists in the environment much like a regular plastic bag does …
UV LIGHT ABSORBERS

– by incorporating substances (e.g., henzophenones, alkyl peroxide acids, ketonic carbonyls, or methyl vinyl ketones, etc.) that absorb ultra-violet light into the material, polyethylene (plastic) bags degrade (faster) upon exposure to sunlight …

PROS =

– UV absorbers accelerate the degradation of polyethylene bags in sunlight …

CONS =

– the UV absorbing substances themselves are usually toxic and contribute to already-problematic and ubiquitous chemical pollution …

– polyethylene degradation generates toxic chemical by-products …

– in landfills, UV absorbers will only be effective if the bag is on the outer surface of the garbage mountain …

– UV absorbers don’t actually facilitate complete biodegradation of polyethylene bags … the bags simply break down into smaller fragments of plastic, and UV absorbers help to quicken this process … this option does not really reduce pollution …

– manufacturing these bags still depends heavily on the petroleum industry and raw materials are by-products yielded from refining crude oil …

BAGS MADE FROM RECYCLED PLASTICS

– recycled plastics, including pop and water bottles, are the raw materials used to manufacture these bags …

PROS =

– good use of discarded pop and water bottles! … it’s great to see industry provide creative and useful products from recycled plastics … i think these bags also make people feel good to know that pop containers and water bottles do not all end up as eternal clutter in landfills or as litter in wildlife habitats …

– these bags tend to be strong, durable, and versatile …

– even though these bags are technically plastic-based sacs, people regard these as reusable and therefore not disposable …

CONS =

– recycling plastic requires copious amounts of water and energy plus toxic chemicals including rinsing agents, surfactants, detergents, etc. …

– recycling plastic also produces chemical wastes that are as damaging to wildlife and ecosystems as are the wastes produced from crude oil refineries …

– this does not truly address or solve the problem of accumulating plastic pop and water bottles …

– plastic becomes less durable each time it is recycled (i.e., melted and reformed) into a new product …

PAPER BAGS

– ideally made from recycled paper, these naturally biodegradable bags have a lifespan of approximately 30 days …

PROS =

– naturally biodegradable … actually compostable if printed with non-toxic plant-based inks …

– made from renewable (but again, not necessarily inexhaustible) resources …

– these bags are less likely to be ingested by wildlife, and are largely digestible (although probably not very tasty!) if they are swallowed …

– paper bags tear easily and therefore will likely not entangle, strangle, or entrap wildlife …

– arguably, the extraction of raw materials for paper bags imparts less environmental damage than extracting crude oil … there are so many factors to consider when comparing resource extraction … the debate over

which resource extraction practice — tree harvesting or crude oil drilling — imparts less environmental damage remains a contentious issue … when you read summaries of original research publications, it is often difficult to determine how robust the study design was, how rigorous the data were, and how unbiased the statistical analysis was …

CONS =

– not all paper bags are made from recycled paper, which means large, beautiful (often old growth) trees are felled to serve as the primary raw materials …

– vast amounts of bleach (e.g., hydrogen peroxide, sodium silicate and sodium hydroxide), toxic dyes, soaking agents, dehydrating agents, and water are used in the processing of all paper products, and paper bags are no exception …

e.g., the following data are adapted from C.P. Li and I.K. Hui (2001) Environmental Management Vol. 27, No. 5, pp. 729–737:

waste released in the production of 1 million paper bags

sulfur dioxide                388 kg
nitrogen oxides            204 kg
hydrocarbons               24 kg
carbon monoxide        60 kg
dust                                    64 kg
waste water                     512 kg

note that sulphur dioxide (SO2) gas air pollution acidifies rain water (i.e., creating “acid rain”) … however, refining crude oil and manufacturing plastic bags also emits enormous quantities of air, land, and water pollutants … interpretation of data can be skewed very easily to suit a particular bias …

– the chemical run off from paper mills is a lethal and toxic concoction of synthetic, non-biodegradable chemicals (many of which act as endocrine disruptors in vertebrate and invertebrate animals, and as poisons for plants) plus heavy metals … too often, the effluent of the paper industry is released into ocean or freshwater ecosystems without filtering or treatment ….

a paper mill in an otherwise pristins habitat ... photo: sally a. morgan

a paper mill in an otherwise pristine habitat ... photo: sally a. morgan

– recycling paper also creates toxic effluent …

– some paper bags are lined with toxic perfluorochemicals (paper bags that feel coated with a waxy or plastic substance) for moisture retention …

– transportation of paper bags requires more fuel … paper bags take up more physical space and have greater mass than an equal amount of plastic ones … therefore, more trucks are required to transport the same number of paper versus plastic bags …

CLOTH BAGS

– the best are made from organic cotton, hemp, bamboo (provided it is not harvested from panda habitat), jute (also known as burlap or hessian), or sisal, are not bleached, and contain no toxic colour inks or dyes …

– even better are cloth bags made from old textiles including t-shirts, pants, and towels, etc. (see this post) … this is recycling and reusing at its best … no additional industry involvement, minimal input of additional natural resources (thread and needle are truly all you need and if you use a sewing machine, you’ll be using only small amounts of energy to produce a new product), and little or no waste, let alone environmental impact …

PROS =

– durable, long-lasting, versatile, natural, biodegradable … may also be compostable (see this post) …

– if made from highly renewable crops such as hemp and bamboo (both of which require minimal irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides … both also mature and regenerate quickly), cloth bags are arguably the best alternative to plastic bags … as with the bags made from recycled plastics, people are less likely to treat cloth bags as disposable waste …

– raw materials are renewable (albeit not inexhaustible) resources …

– can double as laundry bags …

– some are styling enough to be attractive hand bags, as well …

CONS =

– non-organic cotton requires copious amounts of pesticides and water to grow, and numerous industrial chemicals to process …

– textiles bleached or dyes with toxic chemicals pollute ecosystems as well as your own body, upon contact with your skin …

– “Water-resistant” bags are chemically treated to prevent water from soaking the contents …
OVERALL …

the most important things to remember is that *all* bags are reusable, no matter what material they are made of … the habit of using and disposing of anything after just one use is a pattern we all must change … spark your creativity and imagine different ways to reuse plastic bags, too …

moreover, reducing our consumption of everything — not just manufactured petroleum products — is a vital move in our collective efforts to allay human-caused environmental damage … it’s easier than you think!!

across europe, most people never stopped using cloth bags … stores charged a small fee for a plastic bag … the same can be said for many countries across south america, asia and africa … the abuse of plastic bags has been rampant across north america for too many years … it is inspiring to see that north americans are now understanding the consequences of this behaviour and are making great efforts to change …

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14 Responses

  1. 1
    Tim Dunn 

    I’m afraid your comments about the negatives of degradable plastics are really just false advertising copy from a giant grain merchant that is raking in tax subsidies, and which is a terrible corporate citizen – see http://www.greenamericatoday.org/programs/responsibleshopper/company.cfm?id=200 . Cargill does business as Natureworks, to disguise who it is that is really behind tax subsidized, allegedly green biodfuel and bioplastics. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1725975,00.html See://earthnurture.com for an alternative view.

  2. Mostly I manage to dispose of my rubbish sensibly but it’s oftentimes demotivating when I find out what some industrialised nations are doing to our wonderful planet!

  3. 3
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