Surprise: Biodegradable plastic bags usually aren’t
Reducing waste is hard. Who really knows what packaging is safe to recycle or compost when labeling standards are weak, companies regularly get away with green fraud, and seemingly every city has a different sorting game to play with bins? Straightforward rules and enforceable standardization would certainly go a long way toward clearing things up.
Even with the confusion, most people agree plastic bags suck. Perhaps sensing that we’re finally catching on, plastic bag makers have unleashed the greenwashers to make tiny changes to their product (like add a little metal) and then make up stories about how the “new” bags just disappear like magic.
In 2010, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission proposed some recommendations for environmental marketing claims. Since then, the market-regulating agency has actually started actively eradicating eco-bullshit.
Last year, the FTC cracked down on unsubstantiated claims of “biodegradable” and “compostable” bags. The Guardian’s Circular Economy series updates us on the latest distorted marketing word, “oxodegradable”:
Last month, the FTC sent warning letters to 15 additional marketers, informing them that their claims “may be deceptive”. The FTC also requested “competent and reliable scientific evidence proving that their bags will biodegrade as advertised”. This time, the term of offense is “oxodegradable”, implying the bag will break down in time when exposed to oxygen.
Though the names of the companies have not been released by the FTC, all are said to market traditional plastic products that have been amended with additives –metals, typically – intended to break the bags down in the presence of oxygen. As many bags are dumped in the low-oxygen environment of a landfill, the FTC has said those advertised benefits are dubious.
More to the point, isn’t the goal of making biodegradable products that they don’t have to go in a landfill at all? Food scraps are super biodegradable, and that’s why they go in the green bin or a compost pile. Biodegrading into nutritious soil in the landfill is worthless.
In the Guardian piece, sustainable manufacturing expert Joseph Greene, a professor at California State University, Chico, points out that “oxodegradable” should be amended to “oxofragmentable” to be more accurate.
Plastics just break into smaller and smaller pieces. Chemically, they don’t break down into anything less hazardous. In fact, if these plastic bags disintegrate in the ocean, they’ll surely be just about the right size for sea creatures to mistake them for plankton.
The plastic bag industry shouldn’t feel too threatened by the trend toward BYOBag to the grocery store: We still sack up our produce and bulk items in 100 billion plastic bags a year. States and cities are launching plastic bag bans left and right, but those are baby steps at best. Even when cities “ban” plastic bags, what do shoppers put their fruits and veggies in? Plastic bags. To make a real dent, we may have to wait for Plastic Bag Ban 2.0 — a rule that applies to more than the checkout line.