On December 14, Boston’s ban on plastic bags went into effect, as the city joined many other large urban areas that have banned plastic bags. According to news reports, the ban was unanimously approved by the city council. Other nearby communities such as Cambridge and Brookline already have bag bans in place.
The ban affects most retail establishments and covers all single-use checkout bags used by customers to carry purchased items. “Businesses should encourage customers to use their own reusable shopping bags,” said the ordinance; however, retail stores can sell reusable, recyclable or compostable bags to customers for at least 5 cents per bag. Exemptions include produce bags, laundry/dry-cleaning bags, newspaper bags and bags used to wrap meat or frozen foods.
Good Start Packaging CEO Ken Jacobus weighed in and published a blog post on the company’s website that provides instructions on how to comply with the ban. Good Start Packaging produces recyclable paper shopping bags and carries a line of compostable bags, BioBag. The company explains that bags “are compostable when they are proven to biodegrade in controlled conditions within a commercial compost facility.” Compostable items need “to be certified by an independent testing agency such as the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).”
It should be noted that biodegradable and compostable are not the same thing and that these terms should not be used interchangeably. According to various websites, including biobag.com, biodegradable refers to any material that can break down in the environment. Compostable materials are organic matter and break down to become nutrient-rich soil.
Any plastics scientist or engineer will tell you that plastic of any type, no matter what it’s called, doesn’t disappear. Yes, it breaks down into smaller and smaller “microplastics,” but it never disappears. That is why most industrial composting facilities will not take biodegradable or compostable plastics—the material does not completely compost but leaves visible plastic residue in the compost.
Good Start Packaging notes that Boston “has launched a community compost pilot program called Project Oscar” and citizens can go to the city’s website to “find out more about drop-off locations.”
As you may have read in my previous articles in PlasticsToday, bag bans do not work and do little to address the problems of plastic in the environment. Composting isn’t a good answer for bio-based plastic items because of the length of time—three to six months—it takes for that material to decompose. Even then, it is only a partial decomposition.
Recycling bags through the recycling collection bins at most major retail stores is the best way to go. However, it takes human effort—and genuine caring about the environment—to get these bags into the proper recycling stream. That’s where the glitch is. Most people, even the good citizens of Boston, don’t care much about getting plastic waste to a place where it can be recycled.
You can complain about it. You can ban it. But at the end of the day plastic in our environment is not a plastic problem—it’s a people problem.
Image courtesy focus_bell/Adobe Stock.