RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—You may be paying attention to how much trash you throw away, the amount of trash you recycle, and the amount of trash you can eliminate by using reusable containers. But have you ever given much thought to what it's carried in—the lowly kitchen trash bag? Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags ever year, some of which are empty, and many of which are filled with all that trash we toss into landfills. Ordinary plastic bags never break down, however, so a few manufacturers have pitched biodegradable trash bags as a solution to the problem of persistent plastic in landfills. Others are reusing plastic trash to make…plastic trash bags. But which bags will actually have in impact in the long run?
This: Biodegradable Trash Bags
Pros: There are different types of "biodegradable" trash bags. One type is made from corn, potatoes, and other starchy plants. The other is made from standard petroleum-based plastics mixed with (often proprietary) additives meant to weaken the plastic bonds so that the trash bags fall apart more easily. Manufacturers of both types claim that the bags will disappear within a few years in a landfill.
Cons: Skeptics about those claims abound, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently charged K-Mart and two other manufacturers of supposedly biodegradable products for "false and unsubstantiated claims." The primary reason for the FTC's suit was that most of Americans' trash winds up in landfills, which are specifically designed so that nothing (nothing!) ever breaks down. If things did degrade in landfills, we'd have to cope with serious air and water pollution issues. Therefore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that landfills be lined and contained in such a way that air and water—the elements required for proper biodegredation—never enter them. In 1991, an archaeologist from the University of Arizona published findings from landfill excavations during which he found perfectly edible carrots lying next to 40-year-old newspapers.