Greenwashing Alert: Why Trader Joe’s “Biodegradable” plastic bags don’t help.

plastic bags

Plastics are a huge problem. Once revolutionary, they are now the bane of the planet.

We’ve heard about plastic soda can rings choking seabirds for years, but now dead whales wash up on our beaches with solo cups and hundreds of other pieces of plastic detritus in their stomachs.

One monumental portion of this issue getting more heat of late is plastic bags.

Useful, yes. Good for the planet...not so much.

Now, no doubt plastic bags are useful. They store away easily, they’re relatively sterile, they usually don’t leak liquids.  This usefulness is particularly relevant in grocery stores.

However, it’s not enough for an item to just be useful.  A truly green item is derived from a natural source, made in a way that’s not harmful to the environment, is useful and causes no harm throughout its life, and then can safely return to the soil. 

Plastic bags fail 3 of these 4 categories miserably.

To be clear, grocery stores are chalk full of single use plastics in addition to plastic bags.  We will visit some of these other uses in other posts, but today, lets just stick to these denizens of goods transportation.

They're everywhere.

Plastic bags have been used in conjunction with food since 1957, when they were used for sandwich baggies, and over the course of 20 years became common place all throughout consumer markets. You can learn more about the history and kinds of plastic bags here.

Paper bags never disappeared entirely, but plastic bags have dominated our lives for nearly half a century.

And like we said, plastic bags are useful.  When grocery stores provide plastic bags in the produce or bulk food section, they aren’t doing it with the intention of poisoning our oceans and wildlife.  They are trying to make the lives of their workers and customers easier.

Consider this: Produce really doesn’t need to be put in a bag. It just doesn’t.  But it is convenient for the clerk at the cash register to grab all the oranges at once for weighing, be able to see what is in the bag, and then move on to the next item.  This speeds up check out times, which keeps customers happy and coming back to spend more money.

The bulk dry goods are the same story.  We’ve all seen the rolls of plastic baggies to put your raw almonds or coconut protein bites into.  You’re saving money by not paying for packaging…but you do still have to package it yourself somehow.

Extremely convenient…maybe too convenient.

Do you know what isn’t convenient?  The consumer needing to responsibly dispose of numerous bags made of the kinds of plastics that most recycling plants don’t take.  That’s an issue.

Get it together! Ban the Bag!

While most stores are under scrutiny regarding plastic bags, the popular Trader Joe’s has been getting a extra pressure lately to ditch all their single use plastic(which honestly, they do use a ridiculous amount of).  Their response, like many others, has been to switch their produce bags to so-called “compostable bags.”  They have a soft, sort of “natural” feel to them, and they are a lovely green color.

Ah, green-washing at its finest. 

If you read the fine print on those bags, it specifies that they are “Compostable in industrial facilities: check locally, as these do not exist in many communities.  Not suitable for backyard composting.” Aka, these types of bags have must be exposed to a certain temperature, certain additives, or great quantities of UV light.

So if such a bag finds its way into a landfill or a river, or the ocean…what are the chances it will meet these conditions in order to actually decompose?

To some credit, the bags that Trader Joe’s has switched do are made by a company called Crown Poly, using biological sources such as starch, cellulose, vegetable oils, and their combinations. So the source part of the equation is getting better, but the end phase is still too inconvenient.

compostable bag

You can make a difference.

So what can we do?  How can well-meaning consumers change this clearly broken system?

For starters, just stop using those bags yourself.  While a total change is going to require a complete ban on plastic bags, if each one of us stops using them, we can cut off the demand. which you make translate into no reason to keep up the supply.

Keep several reusable bags made of natural fibers in your car, or by your front door at home. This makes it easy to always have them on hand.

For dry goods, find cloth bags that you can wash and use over and over again.  If you can find a store near you that allows you to use your own glass containers take advantage!  Glass jars are great for stickier item like dates and other dried fruits, as well as fine products like flours, meals, and salts, and goods that go stale quickly such as cereal.

For produce, a mesh bag does just the trick.  Cashiers can still see through the bag to know which items you are buying, and it holds the goods of the same kind together for easy maneuvering.

Completely forgot to grab your reusable bags, or it was an impromptu shopping trip? Ask for a paper bag.  At the very least it is compostable, but you can also reuse it, or upcycle it in to a book cover, wrapping paper, etc.

Be a leader of change in your town.

For wider scale action, see if you can encourage local policy makers to ban plastic bags in your area. A growing number of towns and cities are passing their own bag bans to make up for the weak or absent state policies (thank you oil lobbying).

Because really, what would happen if all grocery stores stopped having plastic bags?

People would be thrown off for a day and then bring their own. That’s it.

That’s how it has been done for the vast majority of civilization’s 10,000 year history.

Cloth bags, glass jars, ceramic jugs, woven baskets, wooden boxes and crates are all great items for transporting your goods between the store and home.  How about we start using them again!

I promise you, that if we got rid of plastic bags humanity would not come to a stand still; life would go on. In fact, life will go on a lot longer without plastic bags then with them.

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