Several friends have asked me about the best way to deal with the trash they leave at the curb that makes its way to the landfill. Does one use biodegradable plastic bags or does it matter since it is going to the landfill where nothing degrades anyway? Then I read a post by Fake Plastic Fish (Nov. 24,2008) about Bio bags and I realized that I know little about the right thing to do.
Most of you readers may know a lot of this information already but I thought I would start at the beginning. The beginning is when you buy something that leaves waste behind after the product is consumed. Try to buy things with the idea of leaving little or no waste behind. It could be a plastic hanger after you buy a dress, a plastic bag after you buy the Sunday paper, a wooden stick after you buy a popsicle. Unfortunately, almost everything you buy leaves behind a little trash. Your job is to try to keep that amount of waste as small as possible and keep it out of the landfill.
What do you do with the waste that happens anyway? Does it have to go into the landfill? People have the bad habit of sending any and all stuff that they don’t want to the trash can, which is then going to the landfill. There it is out of sight, therefore, out of mind. So recycle or compost as much of it as possible.
Not everyone can have a compost pile or bin. There are some compact systems if you can find the space. It’s one of the best ways to deal with food waste. I feed my food waste to my chickens - everything but onions and citrus, which I compost.
If you cannot compost you can put food waste down the disposal, but there are pros and cons about using a garbage disposal. Basically, the suggestions for using a garbage disposal are:
1. Food waste should be composted rather than thrown in the trash. 2. Composting food scraps is the best solution. 3. Garbage disposals waste a lot of clean water. 4. Use your garbage disposal sparingly. 5. Never put oily or fatty foods down the disposal.
Recycle everything that your local system collects. In my area, I can recycle plastic (not really recycling), glass, metal cans, paper, cardboard, and waste oil. Toxic items like CFL bulbs and paint can to sent to the Wildcat Creek Solid Waste dropoff site(See my 9/4/08 post.) . Local grocery stores collect plastic bags to be recycled. Remember to recycle all plastic bags like veggie bags - not just shopping bags.
I have heard people ask, “What do I use to line my small waste baskets if I don’t use plastic shopping bags?” My answer is “Don’t line it.” I sometimes put a pad of newpaper on the bottom of the trash can to absorb drippy stuff. You don’t need plastic liners for the large trash cans either, although it is neater. If you throw trash into the big can with no liner, some of it may end up on the street when the garbage workers pick it up. If you choose to use a plastic liner, what kind is best?
I recommend one that is made of recycled plastic. Seventh Generation Trash bags have tall kitchen 13 gallon bags which are 55% recycled plastic and 30 gallon garbage bags that are 80% recycled plastic. Seventh Generation says that if every household replaced one 20 bag pack of virgin plastic bags with recycled ones, we would save 39,000 barrels of oil. One thing you should not do when collecting your trash is put a plastic bag inside another plastic bag. In other words, you do not need to put the trash that is in a tall kitchen bag into a bigger one for the garbage man.
Another type of plastic bag is the Bio bag which is 100% compostable and made from corn starch. They biodegrade when the conditions are right - like moist warm conditions in a compost heap. That is when organisms called decomposers (bacteria, fungi) use the bag for food and cellular respiration breaks the components of the plastic down to simple compounds. Then it is no longer plastic.
There is a problem with Bio bags, they emit methane if they are not in the conditions needed for composting. Methane is much worse as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So use them in a situation where you know they will be composted (This is true of all compostable plastic items). Most biodegradable plastic bags are produced by blending plant starch with petroleum-based polyesters, they are working on making a polyester from plant oils.
Another type of plastic bag is one I had not heard of before, the degradable bag. They also break down into simpler compounds but must contain a chemical additive that makes them degrade in the presence of oxygen, light or heat. They are best suited to a landfill and can take up to 18 months to totally degrade. They are still polyethylene, therefore, a petroleum product (natural gas).
What about paper bags? They are no better than plastic because they make more pollution during the manufacturing process. They do decompose when thrown away in the right place but they are not the answer. See my post on paper vs. plastic on 6/26/08.
To be green - see how little you can send to the landfill.