22 August 2013

The Shopping Bag Revolution

Compostable Bags are Good Alternatives

More and more cities are taking steps to try to address litter problems associated with polyethylene plastic shopping bags. Some of the most popular methods are recycling programs, taxes on single-use plastic bags, and incentives for bringing a reusable bag. All of these efforts can be a part of comprehensive bag ban legislation.

This compostable bag, made with Mvera, is a great <br />alternative for groceries. Once you get home, the <br />bag can be used to collect your kitchen waste for <br />compost collection.”></td>
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<td style=This compostable bag, made with Mvera, is a great
alternative for groceries. Once you get home, the
bag can be used to collect your kitchen waste for
compost collection.

Many retailers have also promoted the use of reusable cloth bags that shoppers can bring back and use over and over thereby avoiding the need for the thin plastic bags. Unfortunately, as Lynne discussed in an earlier post, there are potential problems with reusable cloth bags as well.

Metabolix promotes compostable plastic bags as a further alternative to recycling and reusable bags in the effort to reduce litter from single use polyethylene carry-out bags. After you’ve brought your groceries home, these durable, watertight bags are the perfect size for use in typical kitchen food waste bins.

They can then be collected in curb-side municipal waste collection systems that pick up for industrial composting throughout residential communities. Furthermore, this mode encourages diversion of food waste from landfills to composters – an additional policy concern in these communities.

In all four cases where alternatives to single use disposal carry out bags are being implemented – paper & plastic bag recycling, bag composting with food waste, and reusable cloth or thick plastic bags – economic incentives are often in place. Reusable bags are generally sold for under $3 and in some cases actual reuse comes with a small discount off of purchases. Fees of around 5-10 cents per bag are increasingly being charged for the single use bags as a disincentive (see Montgomery County, MD as an example). Some communities are implementing a tax on single use bags and in other cases they may subsidize alternatives to promote their use by making the alternatives available free or at a discount. For a full overview of proposed and pending legislation, see the NCSL’s page on plastic bag legislation.

Of course competitive realities, being what they are in retail, hinder expanded use of these alternatives. Retailers often double-bag for heavier items, and/or use more bags to be sure to avoid over filling and crushing produce, thereby indirectly encouraging more broad use of lower cost polyethylene carryout bags. As a result, more and more communities are resorting to use of broad policy measures to drive behavior change, trying to enact outright bans on the use of single-use carry-out bags. Legislation driven policy can be effective in leveling the competitive playing field between low cost polyethylene single use bags and the (often costlier) biodegradable alternatives by placing real economic penalties on the use of the former. As an example, in 2009, the District of Columbia enacted a law to ban the distribution of disposable, non-recyclable plastic carry-out bags and set a fee of 5 cents for distribution of all other disposable bags. No state has yet to enact a statewide ban, fee or tax, however.

In another example of incentivizing conscientious bag use, Delaware enacted an At-Store Recycling Program. The legislation encourages the use of reusable bags, requires stores to establish an at-store recycling program that provides an opportunity for customers of the store to return clean plastic bags, requires that plastic carry-out bags display a recycling message and provides fines and penalties for noncompliance. Illinois passed similar legislation, The Plastic Bag and Film Recycling Act, in 2012.

A few factors are important to consider in such programs with regard to compostable bags.

First, the language of the policy must allow for alternatives that are ready for introduction today. Policy runs into trouble in cases where too few alternatives are allowed or where approved alternatives are not yet ready to meet the current need. Examples include policies that allow “compostable and marine degradable” bags. While compostable bags are widely available, marine degradable bag technology is still being developed. This first critical success factor is a case of having enough supply to meet demand.

A second factor is ensuring the parallel development in associated community infrastructure to enable the alternatives to be effectively implemented. Typical examples here include weakly developed systems for collection of compostable waste, and insufficient local facilities to process the compost.

A third success factor is proactively writing mechanisms into the policy that enable future technology evolution. Policy language in the US generally refers to the ASTM standard D6400 to define allowable bag products. However, as anaerobic digesters become more prevalent alternatives to composting, future bag products that enable food waste to be diverted to these facilities will also become viable bag alternatives. These technologies are not yet widely commercially available, and there is not yet an established industry standard to qualify allowable products. The most robust policy would have language able to incorporate such new industry standards that will be established in the future.

Currently, Metabolix promotes a line of D6400 certified compostable bags made with our Mvera compostable polymers. With one effective solution, several needs are served. They are effective retail shopping bags. They can be repurposed as bags for collecting household food waste for collection to municipal composting and save the consumer from buying additional bags for this purpose. Finally, they promote bag litter reduction, and diversion of food waste from increasingly scare landfills to composters – two important public policy agendas that are very relevant today.

If your community is considering alternatives to single use polyethylene plastic bags, take a look at Metabolix’s Compostable Bag FAQ to learn more about the benefits of using these compostable bags and including them in your policy considerations.

Source: Metabolix, press release, 2013-08-22.

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