Paper or plastic? Neither

Brenna Hatcher

It’s the year 3008 — perhaps humankind can vacation on the moon by now — and the plastic bag you brought home from the supermarket yesterday has finally decomposed.

Space travel wasn’t part of Becky Hartford’s message as she manned a display at the Canandaigua Wegmans recently, but the shelf life of plastic grocery bags was: They take 1,000 years to decompose and 100 billion of the bags get thrown away each year.

Wegmans Food Markets, Tops Friendly Markets and other stores among those nationwide are trying to reduce the amount of plastic they hand out every year. One chain out west has stopped offering plastic bags.

Big signs outside Wegmans ask: “Did you remember your reusable shopping bag?” Inside, at the end of every aisle, these reusable black bags hang on rods, on sale for 99 cents. Tops posts less prominent but similar reminders on the entrance doors.

 Not all plastic bags end up in landfills. Jim Synder of Palymra works at FCR Ontario, a recycling plant owned by Casella Waste Systems, at the Ontario County landfill in Flint. He said he has noticed “a drastic increase in plastic bags in the past year as people have become aware of the plastic bag problem.”

Synder said it would be impossible to give any numbers on the amount of plastic bags, but said the change has been significant enough for him to notice.

Those who recycle their plastic bags send them on a journey. Jeanne Colleluori, a Wegmans spokeswoman, said the bags are collected at each of the 71 stores. Any kind of plastic bag can be recycled at Wegmans. The bags are bailed together, then compacted into smaller blocks. Next, these blocks are sold to a company called Suntex, then sent to a recycling center in Florida.

“After that, they are made into other plastic bags, also plastic decking,” she said.

Sometimes recycled plastic bags are made into plastic lumber or highway railings. In fact, the reusable bags sold at Wegmans are made of — what else? — recycled plastic bags. 

“The income from the bailed plastic does not make up for the initial cost of purchasing plastic bags for our use,” said Colleluori.

She was unable to say how much of a profit Wegmans makes by selling its reusable bags.

Another alternative to the plastic bag, though not widely used, is a BioBag. It decomposes rapidly because it is made of cornstarch, vegetable oil and other renewable ingredients. Sharon Fisher, a worker at the New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling, estimates it would take about three months for a BioBag to decompose. 

“It (BioBag) won’t compost unless it has the proper conditions of air, light and water, and in a landfill, if absent, that stuff won’t biodegrade,” said Fisher. “In a compost facility they will.”

She didn’t know if any Finger Lakes stores are using BioBags.

 “The percentage (of plastic bags) recycled has increased only because more stores are setting up programs and in some communities they actually have laws to set up programs,” Fisher said, referring to a law passed in California.

She believes that because the cost of petroleum is rising, plastic bags are becoming more expensive for stores to buy and will be phased out eventually. Paper, she said, is better than plastic but still is not the best option. Paper bags will decompose faster but they are expensive for stores to buy and require trees to make. The first choice, she said, is reusable bags.

In January, Whole Foods Market, an organic grocery chain, announced that it would no longer offer plastic bags. Customers must bring their own reusable bags.

At the end of March 2007, Wegmans had sold more than 1.3 million reusable bags.

“Since the introduction of the reusable bags, we have also taken other measures to reduce the number of plastic bags being used in our stores,” Colleluori said. “For instance, we have re-trained all our cashiers to increase the number of items put into each bag. We have also gradually rolled out to all our stores a stronger, larger plastic bag which will hold more and consequently use less plastic.” 

She estimates that the combination of these actions has led to a 15 percent decrease in plastic bag use.

“We have no plans at this time to stop using plastic bags,” Colleluori added.

She said customers want a choice and Wegmans does not want to take that choice away.

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