Compostable bags part of good stewardship
By Mark Fergusson
Down to Earth plans to end the use of conventional plastic checkout bags this year at all five of our stores including Ho-nolulu, Kailua and Pearlridge on O'ahu and Kahului and Makawao on Maui. We plan to provide a variety of options designed to contribute to a cleaner and safer environment.
Customers will be offered 100 percent compostable, biodegradable plastic bags made from GMO-free cornstarch. These bags biodegrade naturally when exposed to the Earth's elements and microorganisms in the soil. They will decompose in a controlled composting environment in 10 to 45 days, leaving no harmful residues. And, they will biodegrade in fresh and salt water.
The only thing standing in our way is a severe shortage of compostable bags on the market. As soon as we have a source for reliable long-term supply, we will complete the switchover.
Biodegradable bags currently cost around 15 cents compared with 3 cents for conventional bags. This means a huge increase in our costs considering the large number of bags customers use each day. So we conducted an informal customer survey to help us decide how to recover this additional cost.
Eighty percent of the customers surveyed said they would prefer us to charge them 10 cents per bag for the biodegradable bags rather than see increased prices.
Along with charging customers 10 cents for the biodegradable bags, we are planning to increase our credit per bag from 5 cents to 10 cents for those who reuse their biodegradable bags or bring their own bags. And, we will offer a variety of reusable bags beyond the canvas bags we have been offering for decades and the collapsible recycled plastic bags that we have offered in more recent years.
There are several reasons why we want to get rid of the standard plastic bags as soon as possible.
News reports say the number of plastic bags used around the world annually has been estimated between 100 billion to 1 trillion. Only a tiny fraction of them are recycled. Most have a short lifetime with a consumer, as they are used mainly for the few minutes it takes to get from the store to home. And then they're thrown away. Many bags litter the landscape, or end up in landfills, or the oceans, where plastics make up an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of all marine debris.
The Center for Marine Conservation based in Washington, D.C., recently completed a five-year study into ocean debris. Their National Marine Debris Monitoring Program recorded that plastic bags accounted for more than 10 percent of the debris washed up on the U.S. coastline. This is a worrisome problem for Hawai'i, where the effect on sea life can be catastrophic. According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2005, plastic bags flying into the ocean affect nearly 200 different species of sea life that die after ingesting plastic bags which they mistake for food. These species include whales, dolphins, seals and turtles.
The environmental effects are just as devastating. Plastics have been around for only about 150 years, so no one is sure how long they take to break down. But environmentalists, scientists and manufacturers generally agree that the process can take up to 1,000 years. Over time, these bags break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers that eventually contaminate soils and waterways. As a consequence, their microscopic particles can enter the food chain.
Some people say that reusable bags made from recycled material are the gold standard, but we don't see it as a viable solution, nor do we see paper as being very helpful either.
Shopping bags from recycled material are made mostly using plastic bottles shipped to India and China for reprocessing. As a result, these bags have a huge environmental footprint that negates any benefits. One need only consider the additional costs associated with extra manufacturing to reconstitute the bottles into recyclable materials, related chemical waste, and round-trip shipping.
As for paper bags, many people assume they are better for the environment because their core ingredient is derived from wood, which is a natural and renewable product. But the wood industry is also responsible for clear-cutting old-growth forests and adding to the problems of deforestation. Replanting fast-growing pine trees may solve the recycling problem for the companies, but it also creates unnatural forests with fewer old-growth hardwood trees for native animals to inhabit. In addition, paper bags are also produced using many chemical processes that pollute waterways. Besides, paper bags don't work very well because they tear and are difficult to handle if you carry more than one bag.
The truly sustainable environmental solution is to embrace the latest in compostable technology while encouraging people to reuse their bags. In so doing, we will contribute to a cleaner and safer environment.
We owe it to ourselves and to our children, who will inherit the results of our good stewardship. As far as Down to Earth is concerned, the sooner we are able to stop using plastic bags the better.
Mark Fergusson is chief executive officer of Down to Earth. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.