A Rubbish Bag Dilemma

money-graphics-2008_867017a Attempting to be an environmentally-aware citizen, I try to do the right thing with my rubbish: I reduce where I can, reuse when I can, and recycle what I can.  Despite the efforts, there is always some rubbish left over to be thrown in the bin.  But the other day at the store, I ran into a quandary: which type of rubbish bag is the most environmentally friendly one?

Since I use reusable bags for most of my shopping – bags that are either cloth or are made from recycled plastic shopping bags – I don’t receive many bags from the store into which I can place my rubbish.  That means I end up going to the store and buying rubbish bags.

This weekend I went to Tesco-Lotus, the local branch of the huge British retailer that is similar to America’s Wal Mart or France’s Carrefour.  There in the household goods section were two different types of Tesco branded rubbish bags:

  • Tesco Greener Living 100% Recycled Garbage Bags – Made with 100% recycled recyclable plastic.
  • Tesco Greener Living 100% Oxo-Biodegradable Garbage Bags – Made with 100% virgin materials but recyclable and biodegradable.

I didn’t know what to make of these choices.  First off, I wasn’t sure what oxo-biodegradable was but it sounded tricky to me.  To top it off, why would any green initiative tout its use of 100% virgin materials?

Not having all day to ponder this, I made my choice for the 100% recycled bags and headed home, where I fired up the computer and did some research.  From what I have read, “oxo-biodegradable” is the so-called second generation of biodegradable plastic bags: 

PLA, or corn-based bags were the first generation.  These seem to have many problems including not being recyclable through the normal process, imparting an off taste to water or other food products carried in them, and decaying so fast in an oxygen-free environment that they give off large amounts of methane.

This second generation, “oxo-biodegradable”, is made with a small amount of metal that allows it to biodegrade in a period of months or years – but only when exposed to oxygen.  If it gets buried in a landfill, it won’t biodegrade any faster than a regular plastic bag.  Plus, the metals added to the bag could cause problems with toxic contamination.

A third generation of biodegradable plastic bags are made from naphtha, one of the side products of the oil refining process.  These bags are ostensibly more durable than the oxo-biodegradable ones, but can biodegrade fully in months or just a few years whether they are exposed to oxygen or buried deeply in a landfill, with fewer of the negative effects of PLA bags.

One thing of note about both the second and third generation bags: they need to be made with all or mostly virgin materials.  Incorporating recycled materials seems to inhibit the biodegradable properties the manufacturers want to achieve. 

It seems that, maybe acknowledging that “biodegradable” isn’t a perfect claim, manufacturers of these bags describe their biodegradability as an insurance policy.  Recycling is best, but in case they get littered, at least they will biodegrade.  While these second and third generation bags are ostensibly recyclable, what happens when those additives that are designed to speed up degradation wind up in other plastic products?  Do those products begin to degrade faster, too?

With my head spinning from all this information – as Kermit the Frog said, “It isn’t easy being green” – the conclusion I’ve reached is this:

Reducing your use of trash bags is best, reuse trash bags whenever possible, and recycle where you can.  And, near as I can tell, it is best to use the bags made from recycled plastic instead of the supposedly biodegradable ones.

Here in Thailand, the rubbish collectors actually sort through all the rubbish, emptying the plastic bags into the truck and then recycling the bags, so using bags that are made of recycled materials and then will be recycled again seems to go a long way to closing the loop.  This manual process (documented in this 2008 blog entry) is a fascinating read in and of itself. 

What about you?  What plastic bag conundrums have you run into?


0 thoughts on “A Rubbish Bag Dilemma

  1. The stores here have started to charge a nickel for each bag. But all the major stores sell their own bags (cloth, plastic…) so that they can be reused. I bring those along now but I still use my old plastic bags for garbage bags. But they are also accepted now for recycling.

  2. This is the conundrum I’ve been grappling with for a while as well.  We sort out and recycle what we can, but that still leaves us with the usual garbage.  I used to use all my old plastic bags for garbage, but now they are becoming more obsolete so I have to go out and buy garbage bags.  The stores I go to usually carry the typical Glad variety, and I’ve always wondered how much better these bags are than grocery store bags.  My parents are actually pretty good–they have very little garbage because they have a garden and they compost quite a bit. 

  3. When I was with Social Services, I used to conduct seminars on environmental concerns. If others could only be as sensitive. Everyone would be doing his share of sorting, recycling and other strategies employed in proper waste disposal.

  4. @ElusiveWords – The challenge, of course, is that you wind up with all these reusable bags, none of which ever seem to be with you when you need one!@lil_squirrel4ever – I tell you, if I had any land there would be a compost pile on it.  My father had one going the whole time we were growing up, and quite an extensive backyard garden, too.@Norcani – One of the challenges is that we’re exposed to so much information, much of it contradictory or misleading.  It would be easier to be aware if information was more straight-forward.

  5. I’ve been shopping at Trader Joe’s here in LA, where they use paper bags, but lately, all the grocery stores are advocating reusable grocery bags. I remember when I shopped for groceries at the market on the top floor of the Emporium Mall, they only use plastic bags, but seems like those are not recyclable.

  6. SF is going a bit crazy with recyclingespecially at work…Co-workers shame others when they go to Safeway without using recyclable bags or old paper bags…Have you seen the show, the Goode Family?

  7. Officially, plastics are banned in Delhi but like most Indian laws its implementation is inefficient. I use plastic bags as trash bags. I know it is not the right thing to do- but that is the best that can me done in a city like Delhi where proper waste management systems doesn’t exist.

  8. I just went and watched your little video on your linked blog from last year. Isn’t it unbelievable the way that things are done there sometimes??? I wonder why they don’t jump on the recycling bandwagon and have the bins for different things like they do in a lot of places?? One for glass, one for paper, etc. I would NOT want that poor garbage sorters job…would you??We try to use the reusable shopping bags whenever possible, and I have found that the BIG shopping bags that we get from places like Kohls, Penneys, Sears, etc make fantastic trash can liners for our mid-sized trash cans in the bedrooms and living room!! Have a great weekRuth Ann

  9. Reduce, Replace, Recycle – what more can I do? I’ve started really looking at the packaging. I’d rather pick out single friuts instead of buying a plastic bag of apples -get better quality and don’t have to discard the plastic.

  10. I try to be as environmentally friendly as possible but I do use some plastic bags for cat litter. Otherwise I have some cotton shopping bags that I use.

  11. Maryland is currently considering charging for all plastic bags. DC just signed a law so stores charge money for bags. I just use my canvas bags for shopping now and have been for awhile.

  12. @murisopsis – Interestingly, almost all the veggies in the store here come plastic-wrapped and often on a plastic or foam tray.  Not so friendly.@Redlegsix – I think they are on the recycling kick, but they’re just letting the trash collectors do the sorting.  =)@Jillycarmel – Very kind of you to say.  While writing is part of my job, I don’t consider myself a professional by any stretch of the imagination.  Just a hobbyist.@yang1815 – You are a cat person, then?@TheCheshireGrins – I’m always curious the extent to which charging for plastic bags actually discourages their use.@Dargon – Thanks for adding this consideration to the discussion.  Is energy use the only valid measure?  Oxo-biodegradable gives off both carbon and methane – another potent greenhouse gas – during the degrading, from what I understand.  Perplexing…

  13. @christao408 – Energy use is a decent indicator of amount of pollution created in manufacture. As for the methane, it is my understanding that pretty much anything organic will create methane as it decomposes. Even compost heaps, championed by the green movement, generate methane. However, I know a number of landfills that actually capture and use said methane as an energy source. So the raw one uses less to produce, and the methane generated in decomposition may be used as an energy source.

  14. I had heard of the biodegradable plastic a year or so ago, but this was for tupperware-like containers. I heard nothing else about it until now. Since your trash collectors recycle the bags, it definitely sounds like the recycled bags were the better choice for you. Our trash collectors don’t do that here; they just throw everything into the truck.

  15. I use reusable bags for most of my shopping, and since I started recycling (and purchasing more consciously, regarding packaging and such), I only go through a plastic shopping bag’s worth of garbage once or twice a month. I’ve been simply using the store bags I’ve saved from before I purchased the reusable ones. I couldn’t abide the idea of purchasing something specifically for the purpose of throwing it away. But for a while I’ve been wondering if there’s a better thing out there in which to put what rubbish I do have left.

  16. huh, that is interesting, i didn’t know there were all those different choices for plastic bags. i usually try not to buy plastic bags and instead use old grocery bags for my trash. i suppose, reading about all the biodegradable options, though, that my strategy needs to be adjusted.

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