- by Ed Weisberg
When retailers and communities consider ECOgrade photodegradable bags as a solution to plastic bag pollution, they are excited by the fact that they are the only bags that eliminate damage from littering, as they will photo-degrade from sunlight exposure. However, one of the most common questions raised is “what if they go into a landfill?”. We love this question! Not only does ECOgrade have an advantage over plastic and paper in landfills, but as landfills become less of a factor in solid waste disposal, ECOgrade will carry us into the future.
Landfills have been a common method of trash disposal in the US since the days of the settlers. As recently as 50 years ago, virtually every town had their own landfill, in which they simply dumped all of their trash, covered it up with dirt, and left it to (hopefully) rot. Little did the earlier settlers know about landfill gases, and the dangers and environmental damage of methane buildup and landfill fires. Today, landfills are rapidly becoming obsolete. According to the EPA, the number of landfills in the US has decreased from approximately 8000 in 1988 to 1908 in 2010. So what are we doing instead? The three R’s (Recycle, Reuse, and Reduce) are having a major impact. 34% of what we used to throw in the dump is now recycled and diverted before it gets there. In addition, more progressive communities are now moving towards modern incineration plants. According to The New York Times, new incineration plants, such as those in Europe, have become so efficient that many times more dioxin is now released from fireplaces and backyard barbeques than from the incinerators. Furthermore they create energy from this waste. Denmark now regards garbage as a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly, unsightly problem. Denmark has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones.
A 2009 study by the E.P.A. and North Carolina State University scientists endorsed waste-to-energy plants over landfills as the most environmentally friendly destination for urban waste that cannot be recycled. Embracing the technology would not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution, but also yield efficient electricity. The US federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies. Still there are only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States, a country of more than 300 million people. According to Ian Bowles, a former Clinton administration official and former Massachusetts state secretary of Energy, “Europe has gotten out ahead with this newest technology,” Mr. Bowles said that as America’s current landfills topped out and pressure to reduce heat-trapping gases grew, Massachusetts and some other states are “actively considering” new waste-to-energy proposals.
So how does this relate to ECOgrade Photodegradable bags? One of the key differentiators of ECOgrade vs. other type of alternatives to plastic bag (such as bio-degradable or oxo-degradable bags which contain heavy metal salts), is that they are safe for the recycle chain. The key oxidizing agent in ECOgrade is Calcium Carbonate, which is already an ingredient as filler in many plastic bags. Over 12,000 locations exist to recycle bags, and, according to the EPA, over 15% of bags in the US were recycled, upfrom 12% in 2009. So if the percentage of bags being recycled is increasing, why do we need ECOgrade? Why don’t we just encourage plastic bag recycling? The answer is that whether 100% of bags are recycled, or 0% are recycled, we would still mitigate our impact on the environment by switching to non-toxic photodegradable bags, (ASTM 5272 certified) like ECOgrade. This is because ECOgrade bags are made from 46% natural materials using less HDPE than plastic, use 15% less energy, and produces 34% less Greenhouse gases in pre-production when compared to plastic bags and 94% less emissions compared to paper bag manufacturing. If ECOgrade bags go into a landfill, and are isolated from light and oxygen prior to any exposure to sunlight, they may not degrade any faster than plastic, paper, and other materials that are buried, which can take hundreds of years. But, in addition to being less damaging to our environment in production, when they do degrade, they will not release methane or other additional Greenhouse gases. Landfills are currently the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States.
And if ECOgrade bags are incinerated? Unlike plastic bags, which tend to melt into a plastic “goo”, ECOgrade bags burn gracefully and do not clog up incinerators as plastic does. They produce very little smoke and have been tested to prove that the residue is a non-toxic ash. This non-toxic ash may then be used as an acceptable soil additive for planting. Not only is incineration an up and coming solution for trash disposal, but it also leverages the advantages of ECOgrade.
In conclusion, we can see that landfills are an obsolete solution for solid waste disposal, and will continue to be less of a factor in the future, as recycling improves and safe waste-to-energy incinerators are constructed. But no matter how people dispose of their ECOgrade bags, whether they are (unfortunately) littered to degrade in sunlight, recycled, incinerated, or buried in a landfill, they provide an environmental advantage to plastic or paper bags of the past. They are truly an alternative to plastic for today and the future.
If you’d like to learn more about ECOgrade bags and other new economically viable environmentally responsive technologies, please contact us to learn more. ECOgrade bags were recognized as The MassTLC “Consumer Product of the Year” for 2012. If you are a retailer and you’d like to sample ECOgrade photodegradable bags in your store, you can request one here.
-Edward Weisberg is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, GXT Green