This or That: The Greenest Kitchen Trash Bags

Are the new biodegradable plastic bags any greener than recycled plastic kitchen trash bags?

August 31, 2009

The right trash bag is the best accessory for any can.

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.

That: Recycled Plastic Trash Bags

Pros: Recycled plastic bags, generally a mix of recycled and virgin plastic, are made from plastic that would have wound up in a landfill anyway. So to the extent that they take the place of new plastic that would be used in the bags, they reduce the amount of waste headed for the trash tomb.

Cons: They still contain some percentage of new plastic, which adds to our dependence on oil for the simple task of taking out the trash.

This or That?

Go with…That. Recycled plastic trash bags. Biodegradable trash bags sound green, and we applaud the idea of trash bags that break down into nothing. Some manufacturers claim that their "biodegradable" bags will break down in a landfill, but that flies in the face of how landfills function, and independent testing has yet to substantiate those claims. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), which tests and certifies products that claim to be biodegradable or compostable (meaning they'll disappear in a compost heap or a municipal composting facility), has tested but has yet to certify any of the bags made from plastic mixed with additives. The BPI has certified some plant-based bags made from corn, but notes that even these should be used only by people who send their trash to a municipal composter, such as residents of San Francisco and Seattle.

Want your trash to be a lighter load on the planet? Try these tips to minimize—or even eliminate—your trash bag use:

• Recycle, but reduce, too. Hopefully, you already recycle a good portion of your trash. But to cut the amount you throw away by half, start composting your food trash. There's no point in using petroleum-based plastic to entomb perfectly good potential fertilizer in a landfill, where it will sit for eternity.

• Reuse. Plastic grocery and shopping bags make good trash can liners. Recycle the ones that are too small to reuse by tossing them into a bin at a local supermarket or retailer. Check to find places to recycle plastic bags near you. Shop with reusable canvas bags instead of disposable plastic whenever you can; for small purchases, consider carrying your items without a bag.

• Go without. Plastic trash bags are a relatively new invention; they've only been around since the 1960s, yet we've come to think of them as complete necessities. With a little planning, you may be able to get a long without them. If you compost your food waste, reuse what's reusable, and recycle your glass, paper, and cardboard containers, about the only thing you'll have left to throw away is food packaging. Rinse off cling wraps, foam trays, and other material that might attract pests, and give your garbage can a weekly washdown with our Nickel Pincher's Almost Everything Cleaner to keep it from smelling funky. See how long you can last without a liner.

• Aim high. When you do need a trash can liner, look for recycled plastic bags with the highest recycled-plastic content you can find, which in the best bags is around 50 to 55 percent.