We’re sure you are tired of seeing the plastic bag tumbleweeds along your highways, but is eliminating plastic bags all together the right answer or are there better options? In light of the recent ban on plastic bags in LA County, http://www.plasticsnews.com/headlines2.html?id=20345, we’d like to explore a few aspects of the issue.
3 Options Currently Available to Replace Plastic Bags Use
In lieu of plastic bags, these options are the most common:
- Paper bags
- Reusable bags
- Biodegradable bags
Let’s look at some of the known and potential problems with these options:
Paper bags have been offered as a replacement. While they use renewable resources as their base material, the energy used to produce them is almost double as plastic bags. They tear easier. Not too many shoppers like to see their purchases scattered all over the parking lot. They lose their strength if they get wet. If you carry meat packets in them, they may leak in your car. Also, if they get wet, they may not be acceptable for recycling.
On the plus side, they will eventually decompose in the landfills, if they are not recycled or reused.
Reusable bags are best used for dry goods only. Reusable bags can be a source for cross contamination of food products possibly causing foodborne illnesses to propagate. Per the June 9, 2010 report “Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags “ by Charles P. Gerba, David Williams and Ryan G. Sinclair:
Most foodborne illnesses are believed to originate in the home. Reuse of bags creates an opportunity for cross contamination of foods. The purpose of this study was to assess the potential for cross contamination of food products from reusable bags used to carry groceries. Reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. In interviews it was found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 12% of the bags and a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens. When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours the number of bacteria increased 10-fold indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags. Hand or machine washing was found to reduce the bacteria in bags by >99.9%. These results indicate that reusable bags can play a significant role in the cross contamination of foods if not properly washed on a regular basis. It is recommended that the public needs to be educated about the proper care of reusable bags by printed instructions on the bags or through public service announcements.
This report can be found at http://www.llu.edu/public-health/news/news-grocery-bags-bacteria.page.
Biodegradable bags are a great concept, but just break down into smaller particles of plastic bags or contaminate the recycling loop. Another potential impact is slowing down the progress made in recycling. If consumers aren’t sure whether to recycle or to allow to decompose, they will probably choose to dispose in the garbage, sending all plastic material to the landfill. We will discuss in greater detail in a future blog article about our position on biodegradable plastics and its impact on the recycling plastics stream.
Plastic Usage Must Be Reduced … But Let’s look at it Sensibly
We all want to get rid of the plastic bag tumbleweeds, but let’s not cause other problems with a total ban. Let’s be strategic about the reduction of plastic bag use and strengthen the recycling programs and processes to ensure a greater benefit. The true need is for better recycling processes, both for collection of the bags after use and for recycling the bags themselves.
Encourage the use of recyclable bags or boxes for purchases that can’t contaminate other purchases or provide a channel for health risks. Otherwise offer a plastic bag option for those items that can contaminate. There are uses for plastic bags as a barrier from contamination. And most grocery stores now have programs to collect your used plastic bags and recycle them.
A suggestion would be to rinse the bags from any residue and put them where you can remember them on your way to the store the next time. That way, you can deposit them in the recycling bins on your way in and help keep the loop closed.
On the plus side, recycling is going up and less is going to the landfill. The more we take advantage of recycling plastic, the less virgin plastic will be produced. In an ideal world, we could just recycle the plastic we have already produced and not need virgin plastic.
Please Don’t Rush to Judgment
We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.
Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.