by Ed Weisberg
Over the past 10-15 years, we have all heard the cry to replace all of our household and corporate incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, those spiral compact florescent bulbs. CFLs were promoted as our future solution to economical and environmentally conscious lighting needs. And why not? They use less energy for the same light as incandescents. Thus, while they are more expensive to purchase than incandescents, there was a case made that CFLs have a lower cost over their lifetime since they lasted longer, cost less to operate, and gave off less heat. If we replace all inefficient lighting with CFLs it is estimated that we will save 409 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, 2.5% of the world’s electricity consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 230 million tons, and reduce cooling costs due to a lower operating temperature. Sounds perfect right?
Guess what? “They” forgot to tell you a few things. Once we installed these bulbs we found a few major inconveniences. They don’t light up right away, but take about 3-5 minutes to attain full brightness. You can’t use most of them with a dimmer, and if you turn them on and off frequently, they don’t last any longer than incandescents. And most importantly, they posed significant health risks. A 2008 study found that the increased UV and blue light exposure was dangerous to people who are sensitive to light. But more importantly, every CFL contains mercury vapor, a dangerous heavy metal, which poses risk to people around broken bulbs, as well as to landfills and incinerators. This risk is so dire that elaborate processes and laws have been developed to require the recycling of these light, adding a cost burden to citizens, businesses, and governments.
Given the challenges and the dark sides of CFLs, was this a bad direction for us to go? Maybe in hindsight, but at the time it appeared to be the best solution. However, today, we have a more holistic view of environmental solutions, which considers not only energy and GHG emissions, but also looks at l ifecycle environmental impact, as well as economic burden. As a result, our country and the world is rapidly moving away from CFLs towards new LED lighting technologies. LED’s are not new, but the ability to make them economically viable is, as is their clear environmental and health benefit. Then why do we still have regulations that drive the sale of CFLs? Legacies of laws past! The regulations and definitions are so entrenched in our laws, that they are difficult to change.
Why do I tell this story? Because we are seeing the same scenario in recent efforts to solve the bag pollution problem. Grocery and “carry out” bags have gone through an evolution somewhat similar to light bulbs. Initially, plastic bags were introduced as an alternative to paper bags which were stronger, cheaper, and more convenient, and had less impact on the environment. However, after about 30 years, we recognized that plastic lasts forever, uses oil and gas resources, and therefore, if littered, has a negative impact on our environment. Processes were put into place to recycle and reuse bags, but they never gained traction with citizens. Thus the invention of starch-based “bio-degradable” and “compostable” plastics was heralded as a major alternative. It was viewed as such an improvement, that certain towns in California developed bag ban legislation, which carved out an exception for biodegradable bags that were certified under ASTM 6400 standards as a solution for consumers and retailers to carry their groceries. California even built the US’s first (and it turn out only) commercial composting facility to be able to compost these bags. As CFLs were to bulbs, Biodegradable bags were expect to be the panacea to plastic bag pollution. But guess what? While biodegradable bags, on the surface, seemed to be a solution, when looked at holistically, it turns out that we missed a few points. First of all, they don’t degrade in nature, they need to be sent to a commercial composting facility (and remember, there is only one in the US). As it turns out, it’s just as easy, or even easier, to recycle regular plastic bags. Furthermore, due to the biodegradability, the new bags will contaminate the standard recycling chain, so they must be avoided. Bio-degradable bags use food starches, which the world would rather use to feed our citizens. Furthermore, biodegradable bags are 5-6 times more expensive than plastic bags, so retailers are reluctant to purchase them. Thus, overall, while they use less oil and plastic, they are not really a better solution. However, based on their promise and hope, most towns that are writing bag-ban legislation include a vestige of that original callout which allows these biodegradable bags to be used.
While biodegradable bags got us thinking about alternatives, finally, there is a realistic solution to the plastic bag pollution issue. ECograde bags photodegrade from sunlight to a non-toxic residue if they are littered, use less energy, less Greenhouse gases, cost the same as plastic bags, and can be recycled with other plastic bags. They fulfill the hopes and promises that we expected, but did not obtain, with biodegrable bags. However, as we have seen in the light bulb industry, the market, and buyers, are skeptical, due to their experience with biodegradables. They think they’ve seen this all before, so they don’t want to hear the arguments that ECOgrade is different.
One on one, it is relatively easy to educate retail buyers about the difference, as they are looking for a better solution, and they can review the facts and ask questions. However, it is more challenging to educate government officials who believe that they are permitting an alternative when they allow biodegradable ASTM 6400 bags as an exception to a bag ban, but have been disappointed with the results. After all, this has been in the wording of bag bans for years! However, it is crucial that they can come to the realization that allowing photodegradable bags, which have been certified under ASTM 5272 standards, are the best solution to protect both the environment and their economy in a meaningful way. Once that is done, these towns can continue to thrive. We are pleased to see some towns and governments starting to understand this. We look forward to continued success to improve the sustainability of our communities.
Edward Weisberg is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, GXT Green