I was pleased when new biodegradable plastic grocery bags showed up at the store, nice for carrying groceries home in the rain. The printing on the bags says, "sanitary, compostable, carbon neutral, eco-friendly" - all the things an earth muffin like me wants in a product, right?
Almost as soon as I spied the bags, my friend McLaren came along and dispelled my optimism. "There's a problem with those bags," she said.
Shucks, I thought we'd found a third way between "paper or plastic?" Perhaps there'd been a sincere effort by biochemists to come up with a solution to that dilemma - a bag that doesn't rely on cutting trees or foreign oil - but when I went to the Web site for the bag distributor, I had my doubts. Just as the Kraft paper grocery bag is backed by deforestation, just as the petroleum-based plastic bag is backed by my nephew serving in Iraq, there's a hidden problem behind the corn-based bags: The product is not really recyclable or compostable, in spite of the labeling.
I should have known there's never a free lunch. The corn is imported primarily from China, according to the company selling them, Trellis Earth. Their Web site, says, "Trying to compost Trellis Earth products are (sic), we believe, not a good use of resources." McLaren puts it more strongly, "These bags fatally contaminate plastic for recycling. These bags do not completely compost either. These bags must be sent to the dump where they will decompose."
Trellis Earth says, conversely, "Much of the hype about composting of Earth friendly products is, we believe, over rated and misguided" and then goes on with this bunch of weasel words: "But what is right for disposal and reuse is circumstance and location dependent and therefore many solutions need to be cultivated by many types of users and communities for what is best from an ecological perspective," again quoting from their Web site. In other words, "We make it; you figure out how to dispose of it."
The company also "believes that ...repurposing is a better approach, but repurposing where it makes sense such as in communities such as hospitals or universities with co-generation plants where Trellis Earth products can be used as fuel, after they are used as food service items, and thereby their latent BTU value contributes clean energy. But repurposing is not sensible in most urban, consumer environments. And for that reason we believe not attempting to recycle corn plastic or compost it is more ecologically responsible - it will naturally deteriorate and biodegrade in the landfill, as opposed to petroleum based plastics that will not." Hmmm, what about air pollution, global warming and climate change? This seems to be just a sophisticated form of greenwashing.
My recycling is an act of contrition, an effort to offset my hundreds of other acts of over consumption, most of which are hidden from view because they're buried in the industrial processes that created my home, car, clothing and food. As with almost every attempt to treat the environment more responsibly, the ultimate solution involves the exercise of higher consciousness; I'm not talking about an ascetic spiritual path, but living a bit more consciously every day. I reduce the garbage I generate by recycling, buying with the least amount of packaging possible, and composting kitchen waste. Being an avid waste reducer, the last thing I want is to create more garbage by using something that has limited re-use, and can't be recycled or composted. And, I'm a bit miffed that a company promotes itself as "green" while discouraging our meager efforts to reduce our waste ... waste that is growing even faster than our efforts to deal with it. This isn't the first time that an apparently environmentally sensitive approach to a problem backfired.
Our best path out of this dilemma is re-use. Keep using the same bags until they're stained and tattered to a point of no return. Keep a set of grocery bags in the car so they're ready whenever I'm going to shop ... heaven knows we've accumulated enough bags to supply a fleet of rigs.
The ultimate, of course, is the European solution - the string bag that fits into almost any coat pocket and expands to carry the equivalent of two standard grocery bags. Washable cloth bags are a good second and small items can't fall out. My favorite is from Denmark. The message on it says, "Lad Naturen Leve - den lever du af," roughly translated, "Let Nature Live, it provides life for you."
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer and served on Pacific County's Solid Waste Advisory Committee for several years.