Is It in the Bag? : No Easy Winner in the Paper vs. Plastic Dilemma


“Paper or plastic?” asks the supermarket clerk, preparing to sweep your groceries into the bag of your choice. That question used to be a litmus test for environmental sensitivity. What you really wanted was the plastic bag--so tough that the bottom never falls out, with the little handles that make it easy to carry. But knowing that plastic lasts forever and if it’s dumped in the ocean it strangles marine life and if it’s deposited in a landfill it just sits there taking up finite space, you chose paper. Paper can be recycled. Paper biodegrades.

But look again. In the last few months, plastic bags at the checkout stand have taken on a new look. In some stores they now have labels like this:

Earth-Sack. This bag is degradable--returns to the environment.


Enviro-Mate. Engineered for our environment. Non-leaching in landfills. Non-toxic when incinerated. Degrades in sunlight. Recyclable.

And it’s not only at the checkout stands. On the grocery shelves, garbage and trash bags of all sizes, once the scourge of the environment, now come with planet-friendly certification. Glad Garbage Bags are improved degradable and safe for the environment, you read. Or Hefty Cinch-Sak Degradable Bags--a step in our commitment to a better environment.

Maybe it’s safe now to walk out of the store with your groceries in plastic?

Yes, say the bag manufacturers.

No, say the environmentalists.

The marketing of plastic bags as planet-friendly agents has triggered a debate that has confused consumers, perplexed supermarket executives and attracted the attention of both the Environmental Protection Agency and a cluster of state attorneys general who are looking into the new area of questionable environmental labeling.

For instance:

--”Biodegradable plastics are one of the biggest consumer hoaxes to come along,” says Richard Denison, senior scientist for the powerful Environmental Defense Fund, which along with five other environmental groups, has called for a national boycott of all biodegradable plastics. “They are playing on consumer guilt.”

--”Our products are not a hoax and those people are circulating misinformation with their boycott,” responds Jerry L. Petak of Archer Daniel Midland Co., major manufacturer of a cornstarch additive that helps make plastic bags biodegradable.


--”The environmental groups are being short-sighted, and simplistic, in lumping everyone carte blanche into the same boycott,” said Tim Draeger, spokesman for the American Corn Growers Assn. that is funding research to make biodegradable plastic from corn rather than oil and has run two full-page ads in USA Today detailing the environmental virtues of biodegradable plastic bags.

--”We think it’s a consumer rip-off to tell people they can choose plastic and do something good for the environment,” said Sandra Jerabek, executive director of Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste. “We don’t want these bags to go into landfills or litter in the first place: We want people to reuse.”

--”This has become a hot issue and the jury is still out,” reports Susan Mooney, environmental scientist at the EPA , whose staff is developing the first report to Congress on plastics in the waste stream. “My organization is very concerned that the manufacturers and sellers of plastics might be deluding the public, and we in the scientific community don’t have all the answers yet.”

The scientific community may be reserving judgment, but the principals in the battle aren’t. The basic question involves the effectiveness of biodegradable plastics, which are typically made by mixing an ordinary plastic resin with a vegetable-based material (usually cornstarch, although starches from potatoes, corn, rice and wheat have recently been developed) that can be decomposed by bacteria that live in the soil.

The debate has been boiling since December when six environmental groups issued a report entitled: “Degradable Plastics: The Wrong Answer to the Right Questions,” and, at a national press conference called for a consumer boycott of the new degradable plastic products.

“One of the reasons we took the step of a boycott was concern that consumers are being misled by claims that degradable plastics are good for the environment,” said Denison, co-author of the Environmental Defense Fund report. “These bags have popped up all over and are being promoted with claims that, at best, are stretching the truth, and at worst are downright false.”

His report, in part, charges that degradable plastics will not extend the life of landfills, that they can release toxins into the environment, that they are a hindrance to recycling programs, and that their environmentally friendly labels are likely to increase use of throwaway plastics.

The biodegradable promotion promises an easy solution to the consumer, he continued. “It says you don’t need to do anything differently than you’ve been doing. At the very least, this is a vast overselling of the possibilities.”

The biodegradable defenders, who include a number of bag manufacturers, are standing firm. Said Draeger of the National Corn Growers Assn.:

“They (environmentalists) are really not interested in helping America find responsible solutions to solid waste management. They want to go back to the Middle Ages.”

In the wake of such claims and counterclaims, the consumer is left holding the bag. Or, more aptly, wondering which bag to hold.

According to reasonably unbiased observers, the realities are:

--Plastic carry-out bags now are being manufactured that will degrade, or disintegrate, under the proper conditions .

--Modern landfills, where most bags end up, do not provide the proper conditions.

These two realities have given rise to a third:

--Recycling, not biodegradability, is being seen as the preferred direction for reducing the estimated 11.5 million tons of plastic dumped annually into municipal solid waste systems.

The plastics industry is already wrestling with the complexities of the problem. Says Edward Stana, executive director of the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment (COPE):

“We are not touting degradable plastics as a solution to the solid waste problem. There are those who say degradables are the answer, but increasingly solid waste managers, environmentalists and others in the industry are recognizing that degradable plastics cannot play the major role that was once envisioned for them.”

That was the basic message of a position paper prepared last summer by his Washington-based organization, a 60-member coalition of manufacturers and users of plastics.

One observation of the position paper was that “degradable plastics do not simply disappear. They disintegrate into smaller pieces or byproducts which may have an unknown and perhaps unacceptable impact on the environment.”

Ironically, environmentalists hailed the emergence of new degradable plastics when they began to appear on the market about two years ago, somehow envisioning a kind of miraculous disappearing act of the mountains of plastic bags, Big Mac containers, plastic foam cups, six-pack rings and other plastic products that consumers use and discard daily.

For the shopper who isn’t quite sure, in the first place, what “biodegradable” is all about, Joe Devinny, associate professor of environmental engineering at USC, offered this explanation:

“By biodegradable, we mean the material will decompose or rot away. It is consumed by microorganisms which are present in air, soil and water and use the material as a food source. Most natural organic products are biodegradable. Wood is in this category . . . So if a paper bag is discarded and gets wet or buried in soil there are fungi and bacteria present that break down the chemicals in the paper and consume those for food . . . Plastic is made of synthetic petrochemicals which microorganisms cannot utilize as food . . .

“To make it biodegradable, you have to change its chemical composition,” such as by adding cornstarch.

Depending on the additive, the process can work two ways, said Stana of the Plastic Council. Photodegradability means that a product has been blended into the plastic that allows it to break down when exposed to sunlight. This is no advantage in a landfill because there is no sunlight in a landfill.

Biodegradable means that a starch was added to the plastic so that it can be broken down by bacteria. However, the elements necessary to activate the degradability process, including air and water, are not present in a modern landfill.

In short, in a somewhat bizarre technological reversal, just as plastics are being redesigned so they can break down in landfills, landfills are being redesigned so they don’t break down anything. That’s because the byproducts of degradation produced secondary problems such as methane gas and toxic liquids. Today’s landfills, said Stana, “are engineered in such a way that solid waste is entombed, not degraded.”

In other words, the 160 million tons of municipal solid waste (including 11.5 million tons of plastic) produced annually in the United States is essentially “mummified,” in the words of one engineer. It is not broken down and returned to nature.

One of the few neutral overviews of this dilemma is provided by Keep American Beautiful, a nonprofit, non-lobbying organization that has organized 430 civic anti-litter programs from its Stanford, Conn., headquarters. Vice president Susanne Woods says her office gets frequent questions on the plastic bag conflict.

She agrees that the “biodegradable” label can give consumers a false sense of security. “It makes them think they’re contributing to a solution when they are not,” she said. “Nothing degrades in these new, sophisticated landfills.

“The better approach is to examine your whole life style and what you can do to reduce what’s going into the trash can,” she said, adding that “consumers who want to do the right thing are very confused.”

It is the rising problem of consumer confusion that has drawn the attention of several state attorneys general who are investigating claims by some plastic manufacturers that their degradable products are good for the environment.

“We are having trouble sorting this out,” said Julie Vergeront, an attorney in the Consumer Enforcement Division of the Minnesota attorney general’s office. “The technology is complicated and constantly changing, and the truth of the statements often depends on subtle differences and subtle definitions.

“We are just in the investigation stage and not releasing any names of companies,” said Vergeront of the Minnesota office which is coordinating the multistate effort.

“When a consumer sees the words that ‘this bag will degrade’ they don’t think they might have to leave it out in the sun for 360 days for it to disintegrate,” said Vergeront.

In addition to investigating current claims of environmental soundness for a number of products (“Right now plastic bags are getting the most press,” she said) the task force also hopes to get ahead of the issue by developing guidelines for environmental labeling of other products.

“We think this is just the tip of the iceberg, just the beginning of the wave,” she said. “Consumers want to use their dollars to make environmentally sound purchasing decisions . . . But if they get inadequate information from the start, they’ll be disillusioned about the whole process. We think the most productive thing we can do right now is engage in some sort of dialogue with industry, to see if we can come up with standard language for environmental labeling.” A spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission said that the agency, which regulates advertising and labeling of non-food items, is working with the states in their investigation of “the general area of environmental claims and the specific area of biodegradability.”

In the meantime, the EPA’s Susan Mooney, whose staff is winding up its study of waste-stream plastics, agrees that the new technology poses challenges and raises questions.

“Basically what we found in our study,” she said, “is there wasn’t very much information out there in terms of how these (biodegradable) materials perform in the environment. There’s been some laboratory testing, but how would they perform in warm water versus cold water? In a landfill versus an open field? I think some manufacturers are starting field studies; in the next few months, we should have a much better idea of the rate of degradation.”

In the meantime, Mooney offers one solution that no one really argues with--source reduction.

“I think that every component in the waste stream should be looked at and if it can be reduced, it should be reduced. If a consumer can reduce use of bags by half, do it. If you can recycle glass, do it. That’s our perspective.”

And what about the specific question of plastic versus paper at the supermarket checkout stand?

Neither of the above, said Mooney. You should recycle. “If you want to do something that helps the environment, bring that bag back instead of having the check-out person give you a new one.”