My turn: The recyclable plastic bag is a myth

Posted: Monday, October 08, 2007

The issue of fluoridation is behind us, and so is the flood of letters it solicited. "The Simpsons Movie" is long gone, too, leaving in the wake a bitter taste of no easy escape from every-day reality. Emerging from that world, we were wondering what would be next.

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A week ago, we came across a letter written by the senior managing director of Progressive Bag Alliance, responding to our weekly Turning the Tides column, in which we encourage people to stop using plastic bags. We said recycling is not a solution to plastics, just an intermediate, short-term measure. The letter claimed that plastic grocery bags can be recycled.

Honestly, we were taken aback when an organization calling itself the Progressive Bag Alliance decided to challenge us, at the same time calling for "continu(ing) working with those that ... reduce plastic waste." It had too much of an Orwellian - G-W-Bushian ring to it.

A quick visit to the group's Web site revealed that Progressive Bag Alliance's members are leading plastic bag manufacturers with a board of directors composed of leading plastics manufacturing companies, according to www.progressivebagalliance.com. Aha! That made more sense.

Simply put, this group is just a nice publicity front for plastics companies. If you're in the mood for an entertaining read, check out the group's page-long treatise of tips on how to do a good job packing a plastic grocery bag - presumably to reduce the number needed.

Seriously, though. Most plastic grocery bags are made of a polyethylene plastic. More than 60 million tons of that plastic are produced worldwide every year, according to the Wikipedia article on polyethylene. According to the Algalita Research Foundation (algalita.org), only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are recycled, even though supermarkets, including ours, have bins for recycling them.

According to the Progressive Bag Alliance, "there is a thriving secondary market that recycles those bags into millions of pounds of new products including durable lumber substitutes for decking, railroad ties and new recyclable plastic bags." About 100 billion plastic grocery bags are consumed in the United States (The Wall Street Journal, September 2001). If only 3 to 5 percent get recycled, how many millions of pounds of plastics must end up in landfills and oceans and not get turned into railroad ties?

And a word on the recyclability of plastic bags: Recycling implies that plastic bags that have outlived their usefulness could be turned into new plastic bags, and, in turn, could be converted into a new generation of plastic bags - and so on. What a beautiful myth!

The sad truth, however, is that "recycling plastic is different from recycling other products such as glass and aluminum that can be made back into the products they were before," according to algalita.org. In the so-called recycling process, the purity of the material tends to degrade with each reuse cycle. Its quality degrades and the range of its usefulness shrinks, according to Wikipedia's article on plastic and algalita.org. In addition, "Virgin-plastic is cheaper to use than recycled plastic, so most manufacturers opt for the virgin material. Most of recycled plastics become clothing or carpet that goes to the landfill once the second use of these plastics is finished. Some of the lower quality plastic that has been 'recycled' is actually shipped to Asia, where it goes into landfills," according to algalita.org.

Having the Progressive Bag Alliance work on recycling and reducing plastic waste is like having cigarette manufacturers donate money toward research for lung cancer cures.

• Mihael Blikshteyn and Hildegard Sellner are members of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grassroots nonprofit that promotes ocean-friendly technologies and alternatives to plastics. To contact the organization, call (907) 789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.



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