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You Asked

You Asked: What Are the Most Eco-Friendly Garbage Bags?

by |April 22, 2019

Got a burning question about climate change? “You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. To submit a question, drop a comment below, message us on Instagram, or email us here.

Today’s question comes via our Earth Month Q&A on Instagram: 

Are there eco-friendly garbage bags? 

Answer provided by Phebe Pierson

phebe pierson

Phebe Pierson is communications coordinator at the Earth Institute and a former GrowNYC Greenmarkets employee. For this post she consulted with a graduate of Columbia’s Sustainability Management master’s program, Asami Tanimoto, who is also a zero waste enthusiast, and makes a living helping companies become more sustainable.

While there are some options for slightly less wasteful trash bags out there, they’re not the best. You could go for bags made from 100% post-consumer-recycled plastics, meaning that no new plastic was created to make the product. But these will sit in the landfill just like any other plastic bag.

There are also compostable/biodegradable options, although these tend to be more expensive and less sturdy. Seams can easily break and the bags don’t really stretch. Plus, while “compostable” sounds promising, they don’t break down in landfills either; the material used to make these types of bags is meant to be disposed of in high-heat industrial composting facilities.

Most landfills don’t get to the temperatures needed for compostable bags to break down, meaning they will essentially mummify along with the other trash in the landfill. This is true of “bioplastic” bags, cups and utensils, too, by the way.

One advantage of compostable trash bags is that they won’t eventually turn into teeny tiny bits of plastic in the ocean. But when you really look at what’s collecting in the ocean, it’s more likely shopping bags, water bottles, and other single-use items that are easily blown around, not full trash bags. In fact, most microplastics that end up in our water come from clothing made with plastic materials like nylon, spandex, and polyester.

The only surefire way to be truly eco-friendly about trash bags is to create less trash, so you don’t need as many! To do that, here are some tips to reduce your waste:

  1. Compost your kitchen scraps. See if your neighborhood has curbside pickup by the NYC Department of Sanitation. If not, check out GrowNYC’s drop-off locations (including farmers market and DSNY Compost-on-the-Go locations) and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. While these options are NYC-specific, most cities will have similar options.If none of these work for you, there are also private companies who will arrange to come pick up your food scraps, or creative at-home processing solutions. And if you live somewhere with a backyard, you can keep a low-maintenance composting set-up going outside.
  2. Use reusable bags and containers for everything at the store—you don’t have to stop at the totes. This includes produce (you can use small mesh or cotton bags for produce instead of using the clear plastic ones), fresh fish or meat (use a large Tupperware!), and more.
  3. Buy in bulk instead of pre-packaged. Your local Whole Foods or health food store will likely have a bulk section with dry pantry and baking goods. This is a great place to test drive your new BYOB(ag) mission; bring bags, jars, and Tupperware, and make sure to weigh them before filling. That way the cashier can charge you properly for just the weight of the food you bought. Bonus: buying in bulk is usually cheaper! There are also a bunch of companies out there that offer bulk refill programs for household products, so you can refill your bottle at home and then send/bring back the empty bulk bottles.
  4. The farmer’s market is a great place to find packaging-free seasonal produce, fish, bread, cheese, and more. Another bonus: it’s local, so it’s fresher and fewer greenhouse gas emissions were created to get it to you. And you’ll get to talk to the people who actually grew what you’re buying!Find a market near you through GrowNYC Greenmarkets, Down to Earth Markets, and Harvest Home Markets.
  5. When you do buy packaged items, try to get things in glass, metal, or paper. Glass and metal are easily recyclable, and if paper gets food on it can be composted instead of recycled.
  6. When your old household items wear out, replace them with items made from natural, recyclable, and/or renewable resources. For instance: compostable bamboo toothbrushes, wooden dish scrubbers, refillable all-natural floss, toothpaste packaged in a recyclable metal tube, or toothpaste tablets that come in a glass jar. The internet is full of clever zero-waste life hacks!
  7. Recycle every little thing you can! Check out DSNY’s website to see everything you can recycle at home. TerraCycle is a great resource for the harder items like protein bar wrappers.

This is a long list and it may seem overwhelming, but you won’t be doing all these things at once. Always use up what you have before replacing it—no need to throw something perfectly functional away just because it’s made of plastic. But if you start aiming for zero waste every time you need something from the store or every time you need a new item at home, you’ll start making a big difference over time.

I wish you luck in your zero waste journey!

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Paul Wightman
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Paul Wightman

Plastics need to be designed to work in the primary managed waste system that plastics are being discarded. “Compostable” plastics are completely inadequate, the performance stinks, it’s not going there and in the end, Compostable plastics do not create compost. Plastics should be designed to meet ASTM D5526 performance standards, because like it or not, 90% of plastics in the U.S. end-up in Anaerobically Managed Waste Streams that convert carbon-based waste into renewable clean energy. Unfortunately, the general nomenclature for these managed systems has been turned into a “trigger” word to help the fledgling Recycling industry protect its own interest.

Susan Ringler
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Susan Ringler

But if you do need to buy garbage bags, the brands with the most post-consumer recycled content are : Evolution, earthsense, and Ifyoucare. Lots of others are available wholesale only in huge quantities with high shipping costs.