Friday, November 24th, 2017

Sustainability & ME: Plastic Bags –  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle? Or Burn, Bury, or Bite?

Posted on May 01, 2017 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By: Nate Cronauer, Contributor

As I was scrolling through Facebook the other day in-between classes, I stumbled upon a short video from a popular science and technology page with a demonstration of a completely dissolvable plastic bag. The creator, Kevin Kumala – an entrepreneur and representative of BIOWEAR – claims the bags are compostable and even edible, as he demonstrated in the video by placing a small portion of the bag in a glass of water, stirring until it dissolved, and then consuming it.

The bags are 100% biodegradable, and derived from starch of the cassava plant; a woody shrub native to South America that is widely cultivated for its tuberous roots. The starch bags are not as durable as plastic bags produced from petroleum, but are a nice substitute to the green filmy bags many people use for produce at the grocery store. Of course, bringing one’s own reusable bag is always a better option, but the topic of disposable plastic bags got the gears turning in my head: where do all of these single use bags end up?

As an Environmental Planning and Policy major focusing specifically on solid waste management, I know that plastic shopping bags can be recycled into certain composite materials used for benches and other construction elements. USM actually has several “plastic bag benches,” which say USM Recycles, located on both the Gorham and Portland campuses. Unfortunately, the possibility of these bags being actively recycled for reusable purposes, while ingenious, is rarely utilized.

The low quality plastic and high collection costs do not provide a good incentive for municipalities and individuals to engage in such a widespread recycling effort. Instead, these bags primarily end up in landfills or are incinerated, which poses another question: as they are derived from petroleum and contain potentially toxic ingredients, what is the best way to dispose of them?

Letting the bags sit in a landfill can damage soils and plant life, but burning them exposes the air to harmful contaminants. We now enter a battle many solid waste industry members are facing on a daily basis – where is it preferable to release such hazardous materials, the air or the soil?

Landfills are essentially giant holes in the ground where we dump all manner of waste, including food waste, construction debris, compostable material and yes, even perfectly recyclable or reusable materials. When exposed to rain and other weather elements, stormwater can seep into the ground and absorb some of the nasty stuff in our garbage, creating a soupy mixture called leachate. This leachate can be mitigated with special linings and storm water diversion methods, but a lot of the time it seeps into surrounding soil, rendering it toxic.

If you do not want to send your waste to a hole in the ground, your other option is incineration. Incinerators are giant ovens that burn trash, while simultaneously producing steam to generate electricity to both power the facility and potentially provide energy to nearby homes and businesses. The smokestacks used to filter out certain toxins from the emissions of the incinerators contain “air scrubbers.” It is a large matter of debate whether these scrubbers are really as effective at removing contaminants as claimed by the engineers and companies that use them.

Every product we use presents us with a choice to better preserve the resources of our planet and the value of our dollar. Plastic bags provide just one example of materials that can be recycled or reused. By actively seeking to find a second or third life for many of the “disposable” products we use in our day-to-day life, we can work to keep our soils, air, and water cleaner for generations to come.

Nate is a fifth year Environmental Planning and Policy Major here at USM. He enjoys climbing rocks and drinking craft beer.