Since this project began, many folks have told me how they deal with their leftover grocery bags. What's the #1 household use of these plastic bags? Using them for trash. Recently, an elderly woman asked me the following question, which I've paraphrased here:
I use grocery bags for trash, thus avoiding the purchase of larger plastic bags. But if I use reusable bags, I'll have to buy larger plastic bags for my trash. Which is worse?
Brilliant question. Of course, the answer is not immediately obvious. It also reminds me of a chapter in the Cradle to Cradle book entitled, "Why being less bad is no good."
The problem with using plastic bags is that they're made with polyethelyne (i.e., crude oil and natural gas), which are non-renewable resources. Put in a different way, it takes just 14 plastic bags to fuel a car for 1 mile. So when plastic bags are used for trash, we're also throwing away valuable resources into landfills. Worse yet, as these bags photodegrade for the next 1000 years, they're releasing toxins and other hazardous materials into the environment.
The good news is that we can sidestep this bag dilemma by purchasing biodegradable trash bags, which are made from cornstarch and other renewable resouces. This is advantageous because it reduces our dependency on natural gas and crude oil. The single downside is that biodegradable bags will not biodegrade in the absence of oxygen; this is an issue because landfill covers reduce oxygen levels dramatically.
But let's curtail this downward spiral: If we used biodegradable bags, we can compost our food scraps and those bags. And in conjunction with the 3R's (reduce, reuse, and recycle), we could significantly reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills. Taken together, we can feel good knowing we're preserving earth's non-renewable resources by using biodegradable trash bags.