Doing Our Part For Our Planet

Posted by Vivian McNeil on

I strongly identify as a plastic lover. Convenience is no small matter when it comes to the fast-paced era that we belong to. As a busy Mom and business owner two times over, convenience is actually essential. I find myself constantly gravitating to all kinds of plastic-ware. I have designated cabinets in my kitchen for daily use of plastic silverware, cups, bowls and plates. There’s a whole chest of drawers in my garage dedicated solely to storage of fancy plastic dinner-ware. I have a plastic table cloth drawer (I can talk about  how awesome those are for hours.) and a plastic food storage bag shelf. Although some may consider this a negative thing, I’m not embarrassed to give myself some slack in the disposable department. Honestly, I think of it as my own form of much needed self care. But as someone who taught biology for eight years, focusing largely on ecology, the niggling guilty feelings do tend to find their way in.

An Awesome Alternative 

Although plastic household products are definitely within my closest circle of friends, eco-friendly plastics top the list. The numbers surrounding waste disposal in the United States are staggering, with each individual person throwing out approximately 4 pounds of garbage, daily. But wait. The numbers get more bizarre. Babies will go through an average of 8,000 disposable diapers before they get toilet trained, and the average American family throws out about 88 tons of plastic a year. 

Yes, I did formally introduce myself as a plastic fan- you’re not mistaken. But it’s hard to completely bury your head in the sand when you learn about the facts. I would never tell anybody to let go of the plastic products that are near and dear to them, but we can each admit that any move we make to decrease the use of indestructible waste is commendable. As a staunch realist, converting on a large scale is out of my comfort zone. The reality of today’s world is that we are heavily reliant on our plastic products, in a similar way to our newfound reliance on  all the most recent technology. Most of us are not regressing to flip phone usage. By show of hands, anyone offering to head back a couple of decades and use cloth diapers? I didn’t think so. Plastic serves so many purposes in our lives, and it’s here to stay.  All the same, I’ve recently taken on the role of a compostable trash bag user, and I’m happy to take action for the environment in my own small way.

How They Work

Compostable plastic alternatives like compostable trash bags are able to be broken back down into the natural materials they are made from. The decomposition happens thanks to microorganisms who eat the materials that the bag is made of. As with any biochemical process that occurs, the digestive process that happens within the microorganisms, produces heat, which helps break down the parts of the bag into water and carbon dioxide. While plastic waste is usually toxic to soil, compostable plastic bags will eventually turn into soil fertilizer.  How’s that for a nice role change? The usual environmental tyrant goes green.

Of course, any way that you choose to help the environment is great, but eco-friendly trash bags are a special favorite of mine. Their benefits are two-fold. Instead of acting as a buffer between the garbage and the environment like other bags, the speed at which the decomposition of the bag occurs, allows for the garbage inside to meet the environment much earlier. It’s not just the eco-friendly item that’s decomposing faster, but all the trash inside, too.

Wait. Do They Really Work?

There are many who will argue that compostable plastic bags are not really living up to their name. Environmental activists might even tell you that eco-friendly plastic is worse than its regular counterpart. They argue that while regular plastics may take up to 1 million years to decompose, causing the destruction of land and water ecosystems, eco-friendly plastics often just break down into micro-plastics, which do more damage than plastic itself. Micro plastic is any piece of plastic that measures less than 5 millimeters in length. Because of how small, and how prevalent micro plastics are all over Earth, the probability that they will be ingested by all types of living organisms, humans and animals alike, is very large. Like other toxic substances, the toxins from micro plastics that accumulate in the tissue of organisms will biomagnify as they move up the food chain, posing the biggest threat to the organisms at the top.  

It is because of the micro plastic phenomenon that it is necessary to be an educated consumer when purchasing eco-friendly garbage bags, or any other eco-friendly plastic products. The first thing to know is that there’s a big difference between biodegradable plastic, and compostable plastic. The biodegradable option will actually break down into the environment. It will even be a relatively fast process in comparison to other plastics. The big issue here, though, is that it simply breaks down into tiny pieces of itself, which as we discussed, causes its own slew of problems. Compostable plastics on the other hand, are made out of natural starches such as corn, potato and soy. They break down quickly into carbon dioxide, water and biomass, and aren’t toxic to the environment.  

University of Plymouth's Imogen Napper, conducted an experiment to test the authenticity of the claims that different companies made about their bags’ levels of biodegradability. In three different environments- soil, sea and open air, the bag labeled “compostable'' stating that it adhered to standard EN 13432, was the fastest to break down in sea water, and soil. In fact, after 3 years, all the other bags were still intact enough to carry items. As more and more research comes out, painting an unfavorable picture of the other varieties of allegedly eco-friendly plastics, ecologists are recommending compostable plastic as the most ecologically sound option. 

Available Products 

On a practical level, compostable garbage bags come in many sizes, and work for all types of trash. When I first noticed them, I assumed that they would be mainly small and not very sturdy. I would introduce these eco-friendly little things to my bathroom trash cans, I thought. But I was wrong. These bags come in small and large sizes- from 12 gallons and up to 60 gallons. You’re not limited to using them for just the light stuff, in fact, recently I began implementing the use of these garbage bags in my café in NY. We’re talking heavy duty trash here- food waste, lots of packaging items, and bathroom waste. Honestly, they’re fantastic. I find them completely comparable to the regular trash bags.  

Helping in Whatever Way We Can 

There are so many people out there who are picking up on the urgency to protect the Earth and its resources. I meticulously urge my family to recycle the many, many bottles and boxes that we use daily. It seems that specifically in a world which has just experienced a global pandemic, the sight of a doorstep piled high with boxes is extremely common. Now, with summer upon us, I find myself guzzling water bottles and cans of Lacroix, and encouraging my children to do the same in order to ward off dehydration. Just the simple act of separating these items from the regular trash is a caring contribution to the planet we call home. 

There are so many simple ways to make a difference, without compromising on the conveniences and creature comforts that we’re used to. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle are great general rules to keep in mind, but here are some creative compostable plastic alternatives that you can help keep our planet a cleaner, greener, safer place.

  • Make a point of giving, and using hand-me-downs. 
  • When clothing does become too old to use, save the fabric for pretty book covers or decorative scraps for projects. 
  • There are so many art projects that can be made from paper and plastic materials from around the house. Think egg carton caterpillars, paper bag puppets, or cool vehicles and structures made out of various sized cardboard boxes. Have a child treasure these items as their creative work, rather than let it get swallowed up into an overflowing landfill
  • Create a backyard compost pile. It’ll pay you back the next growing season by enriching your soil with the nutrients that you saved from the trash. 
  • Buy and use compostable garbage bags, of course. 

Over the past few years, it’s become fashionable for celebrities to open eco-friendly companies and foundations. Jessica Alba’s company Honest, provides eco-friendly baby and mommy products. The Leonardo Dicaprio Foundation focuses on cleaner air and water, and climate change.  Drew Barrymore pushes eco-friendly cosmetics.  I may not have the time, means, or the public  recognition to be able to make changes on a grand scale like they do, but I strongly believe that every little bit we do makes a difference. 

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