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What’s wrong with using paper and plastic bags? What about biodegradable bags?

The paper-versus-plastic debate is an international issue. San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban plastic bags. Ireland, Denmark, and Switzerland all charge fees for plastic bags. Why the hype? Read on…

Foreign Oil Dependency: An estimated 12 million barrels of oil per year are used to produce the plastic bags consumed in the United States alone. The average American family uses approximately 1400 plastic bags per year. These bags are typically used once, maybe twice, before being thrown in the trash.

Landfill Costs: An estimated 1-5% of the plastic bags given by grocers, department stores and restaurants are actually brought back to the store to be recycled. The majority of plastic bags end up in a landfill where they can take 500 to 1000 years to breakdown. Plastic bags have been known to clog landfill and recycling plant machinery, often times requiring hand-cleaning.

Marine Animal Endangerment: Plastic bags decompose through a process called photodegradation, which causes the bag to break down into smaller and smaller toxic particles that contaminate water and soil. It has been said that approximately 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic bags and their broken down particles each year.

Litter: Plastic bag litter is becoming commonplace, even in remote areas like Antarctica. Littered plastic bags also clog storm drains, which reduce efficiency and cost taxpayers money.

Paper is Not the Answer
In 1999 the US alone consumed 14 million trees in the form of 10 billion paper grocery bags. In addition, it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. Trees are a major absorber of greenhouse gases, so the effect on the environment is even greater. Imagine trying to replace all of our plastic bags with paper bags…it just doesn’t work.

Thinking Biodegradable? Think Again

All types of biodegradable and compostable bags must be placed under specific conditions to degrade properly. For instance, a photo-degradable bag will not break down if it is covered by water or otherwise obscured from light. An oxo-biodegradable bag requires direct access to oxygen and sunlight to degrade.

So what are the ramifications of improper use of biodegradable bags? Any consumer who places a biodegradable bag in the home compost pile will not see the promised degradation because the required high temperatures achieved in municipal composting facilities cannot be achieved with home composting. Additionally, some of these bags leave plastic pieces or other residues when they break down—leftovers that natural systems and wildlife cannot tolerate.

The unfortunate truth is that biodegradable bags are also inadvertently leading to litter because consumers assume the bags will quickly break down or compost, whatever the conditions, and that’s just not true.