Plastic Bags: Minimizing the Damage

Photosource:http://www.blogto.com/upload/2008/04

Each year, millions of Americans consume, purchase and/or use billions of plastic bags (grocery, pharmacies, food, takeout, clothing and other purchases). Did you know that it takes anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade? The ubiquitous plastic bag is made out of polyethylene, and happens to be one of the hardest materials to degrade naturally.

So, what exactly happens to all those bags that get thrown in the trash?

PLASTIC BAG CONSUMPTION FACTS

• Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

• According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.

• According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion)

• According to the industry publication Modern Plastics, Taiwan consumes 20 billion bags a year—900 per person.

• An estimated .7% or 49,600,000 end up as litter each year.

• Four out of every five bags handed out at grocery stores are plastic.

• They are rarely recycled and don’t degrade in the natural environment, much less in a landfill.

Primary source & for more information, see Trellis Earth.

SOLUTIONS: Where do we start?

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the biodegradable bags, e.g. the corn bag. So what’s out there? Is this really a solution?

Biobag among others have come up with a fully biodegradable and compostable plastic bag solution.
Their bags are apparently made from a proprietary Mater-Bi, which contains GMO free starch, biodegradable polymers and other renewable resources. No polyethylene is used in the production process. Biobag uses a new plastic derived from corn and supposedly fully composts in 30-60 days (in commercial composting conditions).

Trellis Earth seems to offer another solution through their plastic bag line as well as alternatives to other plastic goods (all fully biodegradable).

What about paper bags?

According to Trellisearth, paper bags can be even worse than plastic bags.

‘Paper sacks generate 70 percent more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags. It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. And paper bags can’t even be used in composting programs and don’t decompose any faster than plastic bags once they end up in a landfill.’ Source: http://www.trellisearth.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=10

Like Biobag,Trellis Earth’s biodegradable bioplastic bags are also made from corn polymers, starches and complimentary ingredients.

CHALLENGES

Of course, these bags are not readily available yet. Demand is still relatively low, and cost higher, so its not as easy as asking your local grocer if they can pack your groceries in a biobag. However, the more we ask, the more we will get.

Its important to remember that convenience plays a huge role (not to mention cost). So if a plastic bag is all that is available on our errand on the way home from work, guess what? Most of us will take the plastic bag and go (myself included!).

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

(1) Companies need to make it easier for consumers to make the right choices.

(2) Likewise, we consumers need to put pressure on our favorites companies.

I believe that plastic bag alternatives should to be readily available at stores and businesses should encourage customers to bring their own bags (it will save them money too!). Trader Joe’s does a great job at this. There is a weekly lottery for people who bring their own bags even, in addition to their selling their own line of reusable bags. Whole Foods is also moving in the right direction as well. By putting pressure on our local businesses to make these choices available, we will make it clear that these decisions matter and we all want to be part of the solution.

(3) Bring an extra bag with you wherever you go. Leave one in the car, and pack one in your bag. There are plenty of compressible bags on then market (eg the chico bag) that fold-up and hat can fit into any handbag or purse.

(4) Finally, if the damage has already been done and you have a mountain of plastic bags in your recycling bin, there are creative things you can do with them! Take one woman who has figured out how to fuse used plastic bags together to make sturdier, fasionable, re-usable larger totes. She laso makes waterproof liners, wallets, and and floor cushions. For more on this, see Lifehacker on fusing plastic bags for grocery shopping.

Let me know what you do email at Greencottonblog@gmail.com

Take a minute to do a Green Cotton survey on plastic bag consumption (30 seconds). Click Here

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Feeling the Brunt of Food Prices: Organics


Photosource: Linda Coan for the NY Times

The NY Times reported last week on the ‘sticker shock’ associated with organic products. While the organic market has seen unprecedented booms in the last few years, the recent economic downturn coupled with rising fuel and grain costs, have begun penetrate the organic market too. Consumers and farmers alike are feeling the hit.

Facing the front line pain of the increases are the organic farmers themselves, who are being forced to move back into conventional farming and/or pass along the increases onto consumers. Because the price differential between conventional and organic on certain products is so great, some consumers are now opting out of buying organic for the first time.

Two comparisons:

Eggs: regular eggs now average $1.34 – $3.59 for a dozen, whereas organic ranges from $3.99 – $6.39. For a large egg-eating household that is a 3-fold difference.
Milk: regular milk ranges from $1.99 – $2.99 and organic ranging form $3.29 – $4.99.

Overall, the consumer price index for groceries has increased 5% in the last year; however, some staples like eggs have jumped as much as 30% and milk as much as 13%. On average, organic products cost between 20 and 100% more than its conventional counterparts.

Some farmers have decided to switch back to conventional due to the high costs in grains and other products. In the last six months, 25 farmers in the Northeast have either retired early or stopping organic farming.

Americans spent $16.7 billion on organic food and beverages in 2006, representing a 126% increase in five years. While there is still room for growth, as organic sales only reach 2.8% of total food and beverage sales, with the rising prices, we may see a plateau in sales for some time to come.

In addition, in 2005, the United States had 14.1 million acres of organic farmland, which is 3x’s the amount in 1997. Yet, it appears that this growth may also be beginning to taper. Prices for organic soybeans, corn, and wheat are at or near record highs. When these staples rise, so does the rest of the food chain and products derived from these grains. In general, making the switch from conventional to organic farming requires a 3-year process, plus tons of paperwork and investment of resources. Farmers are increasingly thinking hard about making that transition.

All this points to the important conclusion that as much as we all want to be green and organic, (as poll after poll suggests that we do), there are limits to this greenness in our wallets. Prices matter, especially in an increasingly challenging marketplace. One question I have: do organic farms receive the same federal subsidies that conventional farming does? Depending on the answer, this could make a big difference in making the grains more affordable…food for thought.

For more information on this story, please see NYTimes.

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