What is the Most Ecofriendly Alternative to Plastic Bags?
3 Reasons Why Compostable Bags are Good for the Environment
Every year, humans across the world produce approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic waste. Half of it is single-use, like plastic shopping bags. This plastic finds its way into our rivers and, ultimately, oceans. At last estimate, Earth’s largest bodies of water house somewhere between 75 and 199 million tonnes of plastic.
This is terrible for the wildlife that live in these habitats—but it’s bad for human beings too. Needless to say, many individuals are urgently seeking alternatives to plastic bags. Here are a few reasons why.
The Cons of Plastic Bags and Single-Use Plastics
Plastic doesn’t decompose but, rather, breaks down into tiny particles called “microplastics.” This plastic waste is entering our bodies through inhalation and absorption. As a result, it’s introducing chemicals like methyl mercury, plasticisers, and flame retardants into our bodies. We don’t yet know the long-term impact of these chemicals on the human body.
Replacing single-use plastic bags with compostable bags could be one way to dramatically reduce the plastic waste we produce. It can also resolve some of the associated health and environmental impacts.
But how, exactly, are compostable bags better? We’ll provide some necessary background on single-use plastic and composting, then discuss our reasoning below.
The war on single-use plastic
To curb our addiction to plastic, many governments across the world are banning single-use plastics. In North America, the Government of Canada has a goal of reducing the country’s plastic waste to zero by 2030.
The first phase of this journey launched in December 2022. At that time, it implemented a country-wide ban on the manufacture, import and sale of single-use plastic products. This included checkout bags, cutlery, food service wares made from or containing problematic plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks, and straws.
In the United States, many states and territories have banned single-use plastics in varying capacities. Fourteen states and territories have banned single-use shopping bags. Many others have gone beyond just bags to include carryout containers, polystyrene (Styrofoam), and straws.
The role of compostables
While these bans are unquestionably a step in the right direction, they also create a gap in the marketplace. In the case of single-use bags, for instance:
- Shoppers who forget their reusable shopping bags at home must buy more reusable shopping bags—plastic products they don’t need.
- Individuals who use single-use plastic bags to collect pet waste must buy plastic bags to do the same task.
- Individuals who use single-use plastic bags to line their garbage bins must buy plastic bags to accomplish this
- Certain single-use plastics, such as produce bags and plastic food packaging, aren’t covered by many of the bans.
Fortunately, compostable bags offer a solution to many of these challenges.
What are compostable bags?
Compostable film products include things like liners for compost bins, shopping bags, food service gloves, cling wrap and produce bags. These are products that can be used to transport compost in community and commercial compost programs.
They’re made of compostable resins. They are typically composed of compostable biopolymers, PBAT and PLA. This allows them to decompose as easily as a banana peel.
It’s important not to confuse the term “compostable” with terms like “biodegradable”, “oxo-degradable”, or “photo-degradable”. Products that use these terms often include polyethylene. While they may break down into smaller pieces of plastic, they don’t decompose completely like a “certified compostable” product would.
How does the composting process work?
While compostable bags can decompose completely, they can only do so in a commercial composting facility. That’s because it takes a little bit of work, and the right environmental conditions, to break down the resins.
First, the bags need to be ground down into small pieces—which accelerates the composting process. From there, they require microorganisms which can only be found in a compost pile. These microorganisms emit enzymes that break the material down further. Lastly, the bags require a level of high heat to be distributed consistently over a specific period.
In the right environment, a certified compostable bag should decompose completely within 10 to 45 days. The actual duration depends on the composting facility’s equipment.
The process has only 3 by-products:
- A small amount of CO2 (this is produced by all food or products in the composting process)
- Humus (a nutrient-rich organic material)
3 Reasons Compostable Bags are Good for the Environment
Reason #1: Compostable bags support the phase-out of single-use plastic
As more jurisdictions ban single-use plastic bags, shoppers are encouraged to use reusable plastic woven bags. The thing is, research indicates that most people own plenty of reusable shopping bags. In many cases, people own more than 20! The issue is that they often forget to bring them out when they go shopping.
At this point, shoppers have limited choices. They can purchase a new reusable bag they don’t need, which comes with its own environmental impact.
Alternatively, they can purchase a paper bag. Such bags are notoriously terrible for carrying heavy groceries and are often lined, negating their compostable potential.On top of that, they are also made from virgin paper which comes with its own set of environmental concerns.
Compostable shopping bags are just as strong—and effective—as single-use plastic bags. If shoppers were given this option, they could carry their groceries home in the bag provided. If they chose to, they could use the bag multiple times over the following weeks and months to further maximize its usefulness. They could then use the bag to line their compost bin. Depending on the municipality, they could even use it to collect pet waste. Thanks to the compostability of this product it is the only option that has a sustainable end of life.
This is just one way compostable film products could support the phase-out of single-use plastics. Still, there are many others. For instance, compostable produce bags could be used to replace the thin plastic bags that are currently offered in produce aisles. We could also use them as an extra layer of protection for packaged raw meat in grocery stores.
Compostable cling wrap could help reduce the plastic used in food packaging and storage. Likewise, compostable food service gloves could dramatically reduce the plastic waste created in grocery stores and restaurants.
Reason #2: Compostable bags encourage behavior change
Offering a curbside composting program is one thing—but getting people to participate? Well, that’s quite another.
In many municipalities, existing social behaviors and habits are deeply ingrained. As a result, it can be difficult to encourage households to divert their food waste from the garbage to their green bin.
Part of this solution involves education. It takes a concerted effort to explain why composting matters and how to properly compost (and avoid contamination). But composting also needs to be as easy and convenient as possible. That’s where compostable liners come in.
It’s possible to throw food waste directly into an under-sink, countertop, or curbside bin without any form of liner. Most people prefer not to because of the mess.
Many paper bags are lined with a non-compostable coating. As a result, they aren’t accepted by many commercial composting facilities. Furthermore, non-lined paper bags or newspapers are prone to breakage and leakage. That can also deter some people from composting.
Compostable bags, meanwhile, are leakproof and accepted by many composting facilities. Because they offer a clean composting experience, people are more inclined to compost when using compostable liners. In fact, research shows that compostable liners can lead to above-average municipal composting rates. When you combine this with strong bylaws and education programs, compliance is over 80%!
Reason #3: Compostable bags reduce the resources needed for commercial bin cleaning
Composting can be a rather messy undertaking in residential areas. Likewise, it can also get kind of gross in commercial settings. Consider restaurants, grocery stores, and other places that dispose of food waste.
In most cases, municipal curbside composting programs don’t visit these commercial areas. These customers must rely on private haulers to take their organic waste to the commercial composting facility. While residential homeowners are responsible for cleaning their own bins, the haulers are responsible for cleaning commercial bins.
Traditionally, haulers have relied on a handful of options to remove the icky black buildup that inevitably coats every green bin. Methods include pressure washing, automatic cleaners, bin swaps, or cleaning services.
The challenge is that each of these options comes with significant environmental impacts, time requirements, and costs. While they all resolve the messiness associated with composting, they don’t eliminate it altogether. As a result, commercial composters can still find their bins full of undesirable odors, insects, and pests.
Compostable liners—designed to snugly fit commercial composting bins—can resolve this challenge. First, they neatly contain all organic matter and eliminate associated messes. They also come with a lower environmental footprint, are less time-consuming, and less costly than alternative options.
How to find the most environmentally-friendly compostable bag
Unfortunately, navigating the compostable bag market is a lot more difficult than it should be. You’ll need to find a bag that works for your needs. That bag must also easily decompose in your local commercial composting facility.
It can be helpful to pay attention to certification, strength, and reliability. We’ll explain more about what to look for below.
If you’re looking for a trustworthy compostable product, the BPI certification mark is essential. To obtain it, a product must go through rigorous, third-party lab tests. Testing ensures they’re capable of decomposing in a commercial composting facility. Look for BPI-certified compostable bags when you shop.
It can also help if a product is Compost Manufacturing Alliance (CMA) approved. The CMA conducts field tests on compostable products to ensure they can decompose in a real-life commercial composting setting.
When a CMA logo is placed on a product, it identifies the environments it’s approved for. It will also require the product to be tinted a specific color. Bags are usually green or brown. That way, composters can quickly identify whether a product is fit for their type of composting facility.
You want your compostable bags to be as strong and leak-proof as possible. That way, they won’t rip or leak when carrying heavy and/or wet loads. A bag’s strength ultimately comes down to its resin.
All compostable bag resins are a mixture of petroleum products and organic sources like corn starch. The petroleum products are necessary to increase a bag’s strength and water resistance. While some bags may boast a higher level of organic materials, this actually makes the bags less durable.
For a compostable liner to work as effectively as possible, it needs to snugly fit your composting bin. At EcoSafe, we offer compostable liners in a vast range of sizes—for many different types of composting bins. To help you find the best bag to fit your needs, we offer right-fitting tools. They allow you to conveniently input the dimensions of your bin to determine the likely best fitting bag for your needs.
Frequently Asked Questions About Compostable Bags
Here are a few frequently asked questions about why compostable bags are better for the environment.
1. What are compostable bags made of?
Compostable bags are made from compostable resins, which are typically composed of compostable biopolymers, PBAT, and PLA.
2. Are compostable trash bags the same thing as compostable bags
Yes, “compost trash bags” are compostable bags that for trash bins
“Compostable trash bags” is just a different use for compostable bags. It’s not recommended to use a compostable bag to collect trash because a compostable bag is not able to break down and provide the same environmental benefit in a landfill. However, because of the matching form factor between a bag made for a compost bin and a bag made for a trash bin, the names are often used interchangeably.
3. What can I put in a compostable bag?
Compostable bags are suitable for collecting food scraps such as:
- Fruit and vegetable peels
- Coffee grounds
- Meat and bones
- Food soiled papers, such as napkins
You can also place yard waste such as leaves, twigs, and grass clippings within the bag. You should always check what items your local composter accepts as they can sometimes vary. These bags are designed to disintegrate with the compostable material at the appropriate facility.
4. How do I use a compostable bag?
When using a compostable bag, it’s essential to avoid overpacking it. Place it in a compost bin, and add your food scraps and yard waste.
The bag will remain strong while it’s in use. When exposed to the heat and organisms present in an industrial composting facility, it will break down along with the compostable materials. It will leave behind nutrient-rich fertilizer for your plants.
5. How do I store a compostable bag?
Compostable bags should be stored in a dry, cool place away from sunlight. Exposure to heat and sunlight can cause the bags to break down prematurely. It’s also essential to use them within the expiration date of their purchase to ensure their effectiveness.
6. Are there any drawbacks to using compostable bags?
Compostable bags are not perfect, and they have their drawbacks. They require a composting environment to break down. That means they won’t decompose in a regular trash can, or in your home compost pile.
They may also be more expensive than your common plastic trash bag. Plastic bags cannot be used to collect compostable materials, however. Compostable bags are by far the easiest and cleanest way to collect organic waste.
Research before you buy
Despite their host of environmental benefits, compostable bags aren’t right for everyone. To be a better environmental option, compostable bags need to find their way to a commercial composting facility. They can’t decompose in landfills. If they blow away, they run the risk of polluting lakes, rivers, and oceans like single-use products.
Unfortunately, many jurisdictions across North America still don’t have composting programs. Of those that do, some commercial facilities can’t effectively process compostable bags. It’s important to determine whether compostable bags are accepted in your region before purchasing.
To learn more about EcoSafe’s wide range of compostable products, find them here.
Food loss and waste occur at each stage of the supply chain. The biggest proportion (about 37%) happens in the home.