It’s Not Easy Being Green
Biodegradable is a popular word these days. Everyone is concerned about the environment. But it’s also a word that is easily misunderstood. Biodegradable bags come in several forms, but there are big differences between them… and it’s very possible that none may be the right choice for your client. Before deciding on biodegradable bags, understanding the environmental concerns is essential. Especially in areas where laws exist concerning plastic bags. Simply defined, biodegradable means that an item will break down into natural organic matter.
How this happens is where things get complicated. Different types of biodegradable plastic have different triggers to start the breakdown: exposure to oxygen, high heat, mechanical stress, UV, presence of other decomposing material, etc. Compostable bags, made of PLA, a starch based polymer, are made using corn or other food crops. These require very specific high-heat aerobic conditions found in municipal composting facilities to break down. These have to be sent to a composting facility to break down, and can’t be recycled.
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Oxo-biodegradable plastic breaks down when exposed to sunlight and heat. These will disintegrate if left outside, or littered, and can be recycled American Plastic Mfg. ‘s biodegradable bags are made with an additive from ECM-Biofilms that allows plastic to break down when in contact with other decomposing organic matter. For most applications, we feel this is the best biodegradable option. These bags have all the properties of normal plastic bags, can be reused and recycled with other plastic bags, and if littered or landfilled, will biodegrade safely.
There are no easy answers when it comes to the environment. Biodegradable plastics aren’t always the best solution. Consumers may be confused about the proper disposal method for the particular item, as the terms can be confusing. They may also be prone to careless disposal, assuming that biodegradable bags pose no environmental harm if littered, which isn’t true. Biodegradable bags also, just like organic matter, produce methane when breaking down, which can contribute to global warming. Much has been written about how plastics last forever in landfills.
But contrary to popular belief, landfills are engineered specifically to prevent their contents from degrading. When items degrade organically, harmful gasses and toxic chemicals are produced. Landfills are lined to protect the surrounding environment, covered to protect the contents from weather, and eventually buried. All in an effort to keep the contents from breaking down. Plastic bags remain inert in landfills, making them one of the safest things, environmentally, that landfills contain. However, recycling bags is the best method of disposal.
To assess the environmental impact of a product, many factors must be considered. The fuel used and pollution created when producing and transporting raw material, and the energy used and waste created to produce the product and transport to the market. Among disposable bags, polyethylene bags are the cleanest and most energy efficient product available. Bag for bag, plastic bags use far less fuel and produce far less pollution than paper. Recycling plastic also requires far less energy and resources than recyced paper. Plastic bag recycling is becoming more and more commonplace.
With rising concerns about oil consumption and pollution, polyethylene bags are actually the best environmental option. Polyethylene is made from refining waste that would be burned off if not converted. Plastic bags are 100% recyclable, can be reused many times, are transported cheaply and efficiently due to their light weight, create very little pollution in production, and if sent to a landfill remain inert and take up very little space. Only when littered do plastic bags pose a risk to the environment, and littering is a problem best solved through public education.
The public perception is that reusable bags are a great solution. But when considering all the costs, the bottom line is unclear. Growing and processing cotton for fabric bags consumes vast amounts of water, and have higher transportation costs. Low price reusable bags are made mainly from polypropylene, which most recycling centers don’t process, are produced mainly in China, and shipped across the world to get to America. When considering environmental issues it’s important to think about ALL the resources going into a product.