Tuesday, May 13, 2008

#221 - It's In The Bag

Using Biodegradable, Non-Plastic Trash Bags

This is the seventh change in my month-long pledge to give up plastics for Crunchy's Extreme Eco-Throwdown.

Let me tell you right off the bat, that I'm not 100% convinced that this alternative to plastic trash bags is the best solution to the problem of waste disposal. I have mixed feelings about any technology that uses corn (ie: ethanol fuel, bio-bags, etc.) for anything other than food. Especially when you consider the current world food market and the sharp increase seen in basic grains, just over the past year. However, the bio-bags are an alternative to petroleum-based garbage bags and, since plastic avoidance is the name of the game this month, I'm giving them a go.

For those of you who don't know, BioBags are 100% biodegradable and 100% compostable waste bags made from the material, Mater-Bi. Here's the LD from their website:

  • BioBag products are certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute to meet the ASTM D6400 specification.

  • BioBag products meet the new California law, SB 1749, for biodegradable and compostable product claims.

  • BioBags are certified GMO Free. Furthermore, we only source corn from countries that do not allow GMO testing.

  • No polyethylene is used in the production of BioBags.

  • BioBags are DEN certified for restricted use of metals in our soy-based inks and dyes.
    BioBags are shelf stable, just like paper plates or paper towels. There are no chemical additives to enhance decomposition. The bags biodegrade naturally when expose to the earth’s elements and micro-organisms in the soil.

  • BioBags “breathe”, which allows heat and moisture to escape or evaporate. This feature reduces bacterial build-up of collected waste, thus reducing odor.

  • BioBags will decompose in a controlled composting environment in 10-45 days, leaving no harmful residues behind.

  • BioBags will decompose in a natural setting at an extended rate comparable to other naturally biodegradable materials, such as paper, leaves and food waste.

Now, just so we're clear here, I'm not using these bags for my compost waste. All of my compost is collected in a tight-sealing tupperware-style container under my sink and is then dumped directly into the ol' Garden Gourmet. I'm instead using these bags for my regular trash that goes to the dump. "Why bother?", you ask. Great question, considering the bag will most likely never see the light of day or even enough air and dirt to cause decomposition anyhow.

I guess the reason I'm switching has less to do with the end of the process as the beginning. Meaning, if I have to toss something into a landfill, never to be seen again, I'd rather it come from a renewable resource like corn, rather than a non-renewable resource like oil.

So far, the bags are working quite well. My trash is relatively "clean" though, because I'm so anal about my recycling and composting. I don't know if they would hold up as well under the stress of soggy vegetables and wet cans and bottles. But, I'm guessing if you're thinking about compostable trash bags, odds are that you too are recycling and composting. If you're not - give them a try! Hell, if I can do it, ANYONE can!

So what are your thoughts on the biodegradable bags? Is there a better alternative available?


Beany said...

I first heard about the biobags in the summer of 2005 and when I asked about them on a forum someone said that they wouldn't stand up well in the heat (they begin to decompose). I think you're located in the South...right? So I'm curious on whether the bags will decompose before the trash man arrives.

organicneedle said...

Not sure. Like you, I question using something corn based in light of the food price issues. It seems that it could actually do more global harm then good. The other thing I question, as you already pointed out, is that they are kind of counting on people not realizing that landfills don't allow decomposition. No one would be using them in their compost because they will probably be filled with the things that can't be recycled or composted. Seems like they are banking on people just seeing the green label and buying it without really thinking it through. Doesn't give me the warm fuzzies. A better solution would be to get people to focus more on actual waste reduction, in my little opinion.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've been wrestling with this problem for awhile. I ended up going with brown paper sacks from the grocery store and they work beautifully, probably because I compost, like you do. Take a look here:


Green Bean said...

I had a fling with these bags once, not too long ago. They held up ok but then again we were like you in that we compost everything we can. Now, I'm using plastic bags from my mulch and, I'm embarassed to admit we still dry clean my husband's clothes. It is a CO2 dry cleaner, picks up from my house so no driving, and they reuse the hangers but, inevitably, once every month or two, we end up with 1-2 of their plastic bags. I can't get them to use our reusable garmet bag . . . yet! So, I tie a knot on one end and that's what I use. We empty our kitchen trash once every 1-2 weeks so so far, we've not had to buy anything. Not a perfect solution, I guess, but it's something.

arduous said...

I'm glad you brought up BioBags because I'm considering switching. Currently I just use the old plastic grocery bags I have left from before I got all greeny. I do this because a) they're here and free and b)I've heard mixed stuff about plastic grocery bags actually getting recycled.

Here are my questions:

Aren't biobags still plastic? Not that I'm opposed to plastic on principle, but technically, isn't it still plastic?

Would it be better to find a glut of paper bags on Freecycle or such? I know a lot of people go to Whole Foods or TJs and don't take reusable bags. Would using a paper bag for garbage be better?

Secondly, if your garbage is "clean" do you really even need a bag?

I'm hoping to start worm composting soon, which will "clean" up my trash, so I've been pondering the, why do I even need a bag myself. Is it just because I'm lazy and don't want to have to sponge it down once a week? Is that a good enough reason?

heather t said...

This is a tough one. I have an advantage here since my second job is in retail customer service. When people return things in our largest bags, I snag them for use as trash bags at home. Our store collects them for recycling (so they tell us), but I figured a second (third) use as a trash bag wasn't all bad either.

The problems, tho, are that they still end up in the landfill that way, and what happens when I ~ finally, someday ~ quit this job?

Rosie said...

Hi Burbanmom, we've recently switched to using NO bags for our garbage, and so far, so good! We still have a trash bin, but given that there's no compostables in it, what's left is, as you say, pretty much "clean"--not smelly or wet. We just dump our small bin into the big bin that gets picked up--as the truck just dumps the big bin into the big truck, they don't seem to care. (Hope that description makes sense!) Presto--one big source of bags gone! All the bins need if they get dirty is a rinse with some dishsoap in the tub, or a hose down. Give it a try!

Rosie said...

Hi Burbanmom, we've recently switched to using NO bags for our garbage, and so far, so good! We still have a trash bin, but given that there's no compostables in it, what's left is, as you say, pretty much "clean"--not smelly or wet. We just dump our small bin into the big bin that gets picked up--as the truck just dumps the big bin into the big truck, they don't seem to care. (Hope that description makes sense!) Presto--one big source of bags gone! All the bins need if they get dirty is a rinse with some dishsoap in the tub, or a hose down. Give it a try!

Natalie said...

I guess if the game is avoiding petroleum, then I suppose they are better - marginally. I agree that it's pretty silly to throw petroleum-based plastic away, since it (plastic) has been designed to last forever.

But I'm not really a fan of bio-plastics. I'm pretty leery of the whole corn "industry". And, I'm not sure you're really buying a more environmentally friendly alternative.

I use 7th Generation (petroleum-based) bags because they contain 55% recycled content (broken out, it's 39% pre-consumer and 16% post-consumer plastic). They hold up well enough with my "clean" garbage.

I have a general rule (which is violated all too often) that anything I "throw away" has to have had at least one previous life. But the real game, of course, is reducing our use of disposable plastics all together.

Burbanmom said...

OK, here's a little extra 411 on the Burban household:

I recently freecycled ALL of my plastic and paper bags. Since I take reusable bags to the store, I don't have any to use here at home. Possible bonehead move, but I'd rather see them reused as grocery bags before being ditched as trash bags.

I would LOVE to skip bags altogether and just throw my garbage into the big trash can outside. Unfortunately, due to a combination of HOA regulations and the trash vendors available in my area, that is not an option. All refuse must be contained within some sort of sealed bag.

The bio bags, according to my research, do not contain ANY plastic. They are made from corn, similar to corn straws and cups. They are 100% biodegradable and compostable, which does make them, as previously stated, marginally better than plastic. And, again, they do come from a renewable resource.

I like Natalie's idea of using recycled plastic (after all, if we have to downcycle plastics, we might as well use it!). However, this challenge I've taken on for the month calls for NO plastic -- not even of the recycled Bio Bags.

Again, I'm not sure how I feel about them. I have issue with using our grain supply as a cheap plastic alternative (although we often use it as a cheap "food alternative", don't we?!?!).

I appreciate all the comments and the discussion that is building here. Keep the ideas coming!!!

arduous said...

Burban, thanks so much for allowing yourself to be the guinea pig in this whole garbage bag conundrum. This is something I've been wrestling with internally (I know I'm lame, I wrestle with garbage bags in my head) and it's cool to have a discussion about this. And I like being able to piggyback on your research!

So here's my follow up question: why is a corn-based bag better than recycled plastic, especially if we take into account that it's going into the landfill and probably won't decompose?

We all know thanks to Michael Pollan that the growing of corn uses petroleum. A LOT of petroleum. So does it make more sense to use bags made of recycled plastic? And if not, why?

Burbanmom said...


That's me: bad example and guinea pig extraordinnaire!

I don't necessarily think that corn based IS better than recycled plastic, only that the corn-based product meets the goal of this month's eco throwdown, which is to avoid plastic.

However, just to keep the discussion going, please note that even the "recycled" garbage bags mentioned above contain virgin plastic.

This is a tough question for a lot of folks. Would it make a difference to you if the corn used was organic? I know it is GMO-free, but nowhere is organic mentioned on their website.

As for which is less harmful to the environment? No friggin clue. I know that biodegradable is better than photodegradable. But the production end? I don't know how much corn is required vs. how much petroleum to create the bags. Even if I did know that, I wouldn't know how to calculate the amount of pollution generated to grow/extract/transport/refine and manufacture either product.

I guess this would be where I put out a public plea to folks who know more than I do.... What do you say, Beth? Kyle? any insights?

Anonymous said...

I always have to wonder what people did before plastic. I do believe they tossed rubbish directly into bins or used a paper liner.

arduous said...

Right. I totally get and respect your adherence to your challenge. And by the by, I hope you understand that I'm not trying to be ... arduous ... per se, it's just your post has got the brain cells working overtime.

But here are my thoughts. We try to avoid plastic bags for the following reasons, correct?:

1) Petroleum
2) It doesn't decompose
3) Threat it poses to marine life when it doesn't get landfilled.

I too would be interested to see if anyone has crunched the numbers on the petroleum used to produce the corn versus the petroleum used to produce a plastic bag. My suspicion is that the ultimate petroleum cost is fairly similar, but of course I don't have numbers right now. I'll try to do some research later tonight.

But if biobags also use a fair amount of petroleum, let's say they use 60% of the petroleum of regular plastic, is it worth it? Is it worth it to be using a food commodity for a trash bag? For a 40% savings? One source I read said that if we all quit using plastic bags, we would save 1.9 litres per person per year. Given that relatively small sum, to me it doesn't make sense to use a food commodity to produce an alternate to plastic. Better that we all use 1.9 litres less gas per year for driving, no?

So then there is the decomposability issue and the threat to marine life issue.

Now in a closed landfill, either way, you're not going to see the plastic decompose. And if you're putting your trash in the bag and in the trash can that the garbage man collects, chances are pretty strong that the bag will not end up in the ocean, but will end up in the landfill, so we don't have to worry about the threat to marine life.

My personal opinion, and this again, is just my opinion and is open to being challenged, is that given this, it seems like the best solution is to save plastic grocery bags you see on the street and use those. Absent being able to find enough plastic bags littering the street, I personally would choose to find plastic bags on freecycle so that I know at least that they have had two lives, once as a shopping bag, and once as a garbage bag.

Here's the thing. As a non-consumer I often see myself as the "scavenger" of society. My purpose is to use used things to prevent more new things from being made and more energy being used. Like a scavenger in nature, I "feast" on the debris left by others. Okay that sounds pretty gross, but in the end, by using a plastic shopping bag that someone else got, by not buying anything new, you are saving THAT much petroleum. Because a new biobag still uses more petroleum than a used plastic shopping bag. Now there may come a day when we don't have people being so wasteful and using so many plastic shopping bags, so used plastic bags will be hard to come by. At that time I'll no longer see myself as having to act as the "scavenger" for society. And at that time, we'll have to figure out whether biobags are better than recycled plastic.

But until then, my PERSONAL feeling is that used plastic is better than creating new biobags.

Anyway, sorry this got so long. And thank you, Erin, for provoking such an interesting discussion. I hope you get that I totally respect your choice to use Biobags, and that like you, I'm just trying to wrestle with one of the myriad of environmental dilemmas that we're posed with on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a good answer either. We use the Bio Bags for the tiny amount of clean garbage we produce, just like you. Everything else is either composted or recycled or added to my plastic tally, so not much goes in the Bio Bag. We could skip the bag altogether, but I am not the only person living in this house making those kinds of decisions. :-)

I wouldn't buy the recycled plastic bags because, as you said, they're not 100% recycled plastic.

I don't know ultimately which is better -- corn or petroleum or trees -- for holding garbage. But I would think that if everyone got their garbage down to the small amount that you have, the type of bag used for it wouldn't matter so much.

Burbanmom said...

Oh, Arduous, you don't ever need to tiptoe around me. I promise you, I am 100% unoffendable (and biodegradable)!

Disagree away, oh arduous one! :-)

CT said...

I just don't think that there is a "right" answer, and that's fine. I worry sometimes that we as a society get so focused on one issue and the right answer to it that we ignore everything else (eg, everyone is super-worried about "efficiency" now -- well, the conventional meat industry, with its reuse of animal byproducts is very efficient in a lot of ways, and that is not the right answer to anything). So my point is, we all have to think things through and come to what we think is the best answer for us.

Personally, I, like Arduous, pick up a lot of plastic bags on the street and use them for garbage bags. (In convenient but really sad news, I can go for a run, pick up a perfectly clean bag in the bushes, and pop in to the grocery store on the way home. The convenience! The horror!) I figure I'm reusing something and picking up litter, and my tiny funds are better saved for organic foods than expensive bioplastic garbage bags.

green with a gun said...

Here's the thing: way I see it, our Earth is a patient who's just come into the trauma ward, he fell off his motorbike and through someone's windscreen. He's had his right arm broken and torn and has an arterial bleed spurting blood everywhere, a smashed skull with possible intracranial haemorrhaging... and he also has a lot of cuts and bruises.

We're talking about the bruise on his knee when we haven't yet dealt with his spurting artery and poor brain being squashed from swelling.

In terms of impact on the Earth, the big things are how you heat, cool, cook and transport things, and how you get your food. If you deal with those things, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions at least, that's something like 80% of your impact.

That's why the one tonne CO2 lifestyle makes no mention of plastic bags, or organic cotton underwear, and so on. That's the small stuff. Sort out the big stuff first, worry about the small stuff later. If you get your heating, cooling and cooking from fossil fuels, if your transport is a car, if you fly in an aircraft, if you eat more than two dozen pounds of meat a year, if you buy new consumer goods, then all these things make everything else utterly irrelevant by comparison. Deal with those things first, give yourself a few years to change them, and then we can worry about the other stuff.

I use cloth bags to get my shopping, but still use plastic garbage bags. However, because our local council recycles everything except plastic wrapping, and because I compost, the only rubbish we have going to landfill is... plastic wrapping. Like if you buy a packet of crackers, the packet is cardboard but has a plastic wrapping around it, that sort of thing. And that stuff doesn't degrade.

It seems a bit pointless to have a biodegradable bag to put nonbiodegradable stuff in.

With plastic bags, the real damage they do isn't in greenhouse gas emissions - less than 4% of all oil goes to making plastics of all kinds - but when they get in waterways or the ocean. They choke up marine animals, basically. So the thing to do is make sure your stuff actually goes to landfill, and not down some drain or left on a beach.

Ideally we wouldn't have any rubbish going to landfill at all. But if we do, it's senseless to worry about the bag breaking down if the contents won't.

You're better off just reducing how much rubbish you send to landfill.

Amber said...

I'm not sure which is better but I do feel more strongly against using corn for non-food items. I wonder if you could buy the large paper lawn waste bags sold at most hardware stores and use those. It might not be acceptable to your garbage person or your city regulations but it might be something to look into as an alternative to plastic AND grain based products.

craftydabbler said...

To add to Amber's comment about using paper yard waste bags, you could seal the bag with a stapler or wrap it up like a package with twine.

If you do have to buy plastic or bio bags, buy a bag that will contain all of your garbage, then you are only throwing away one bag. Hopefully this part wouldn't be a problem if you are throwing away mostly clean garbage.

Here is what we do. We use reusable bags for everything we can, but I don't bake bread, so we use a small container we got at a thrift store that the bread bags will fit.

She-Ra said...

they used to burn garbage... at least in the midwest where my grandma lives. no bags needed for that - just put it all in the barrel (or not) and lit it on fire.

Christina said...

From Green With A Gun: It seems a bit pointless to have a biodegradable bag to put nonbiodegradable stuff in.

This summed up everything for me! I'm recycling what I can, composting what I can, and re-using what I can... so if it ends up in my trashcan to begin with, chances are good it's not biodegradable anyway. Why spend extra money on a bag that is??

I wish I could just dump everything into one big bin, minus the bag, but like Burban, my HOA and trash collector won't allow it.

Thanks for all the thoughts on this (and mucho thanks to Burban for the original post!)... now I can get on to worrying about the "bigger picture" impacts I'm making!

Grad Green said...

I have been wondering about the trash bag issue too, and blogged about my fling with no bag:

It was pretty gross. I got some nice feedback about freezing the wet trash, but for some reason that seems really icky to me. I was SOOO grossed out by not using a bag that I'm back to using bags, but I've been using bags that I find. Sadly, that happens pretty frequently. For example, I rescued a bag blowing down the beach this weekend and now it's holding my trash. That feels like an improvement, somehow...

Gypsy said...

I really like Green with a Gun's point about the little stuff vs the big stuff. However, for me it goes against the grain to have to buy bags especially to throw them away. I live in an 'eco city' which is kind of a joke but at least we can recycle just about everything that can be recycled with curbside collection - literalyl we have a large recycling wheelie bin which City Council rubbish people pick up from the street every fortnight. And our non-recyclables can go straight in the rubbish wheely bin. When I FINALLY sort out my composting I plan to just line the rubbish bin with a sheet of newspaper if I find I need something, otherwise I'll just empty it straight out into the wheely bin.