Manufacturers Push Biodegradable Plastic Bags

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In response to a grassroots legislative movement to phase out non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags, manufacturers are developing bags that will break down from prolonged exposure to oxygen or water. But environmental groups are unsatisfied, saying it still takes months for the bags to deteriorate.


Next week, I'll report from China about that country's climate change challenges. Here in the U.S., a dozen states are considering bills to limit consumers' use of plastic shopping bags.

Last year, the city of San Francisco banned the use of most plastic bags in large supermarkets and pharmacies, and Whole Foods and Ikea stores across the country will soon cease using plastic bags. Now, pending legislation in New York and Alaska would impose a 15-cent-per-bag fee.

Shia Levitt reports on how bag manufacturers are reacting to this trend.

(Soundbite of plastic bag machine)

SHIA LEVITT: Here at the GP Plastics manufacturing plant in Dallas, Texas, a large machine cuts a steady stream of thin plastic film into bags for newspapers.

(Soundbite of plastic-cutting machine)

LEVITT: Chief Financial Officer Mike Skinner says San Francisco's recent restrictions got his clients thinking about alternatives, although newspaper bags are not included in bans so far.

Mr. MIKE SKINNER (Chief Financial Officer, GP Plastics): I believe they saw the writing on the wall. Our newspapers contacted us within a week. At the end of the day, we manufacture what our customers want us to manufacture.

LEVITT: So, GP came up with its newest product - a plastic bag it says degrades in the environment if exposed to oxygen. Skinner says an additive helps PolyGreen bags break down faster than conventional bags, including in landfills. He says the process can take as few as four months if they get snagged on a tree branch or land on the side of the road.

Mr. SKINNER: Oxo biodegradable bags will disappear from the environment if they're out free-floating as litter.

LEVITT: Plastic's high profile has accelerated other efforts to create and market alternatives, including bags that break down in water or sunlight. But it's uncertain which newly marketed bags would be exempt from which bans. Many new bags don't break down fast enough to be considered biodegradable, and there are other reasons why some environmentalists aren't convinced.

Brenda Platt runs the sustainable plastics initiative at the D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Ms. BRENDA PLATT (Institute for Local Self-Reliance): I don't think designing plastics to degrade in the environment is a solution. Maybe they do degrade in four months, but, you know, is that fast enough? Is that the kind of products that we want to design?

LEVITT: Platt doesn't think so. She says reusable, durable bags are the way to go long-term, but in the meantime, solutions should focus on diverting more waste from landfills and on using renewable resources.

Ms. PLATT: We're really trying to promote products that can be reused, recycled and composted.

LEVITT: Despite campaigns to change plastic bag consumption habits, industry trade groups aren't worried about holding on to the market. So far, restrictions in San Francisco and at Whole Foods stores are projected to cost the billion-dollar industry just a few million dollars per year.

Keith Christman of the industry trade group Progressive Bag Affiliates says bans and fees aren't the answer.

Mr. KEITH CHRISTMAN (Senior Director of Packaging, Progressive Bag Affiliates): We clearly think that recycling is the best approach. This material is a very valuable resource and can be recycled into a new life.

LEVITT: A few companies use bags to make plastic lumber for fences and decks. One company started selling bags made from recycled bag content. Christman says consumers are starting to realize they can bring bags, dry cleaning covers and similar items to collection bins like grocery stores. Recycling rates are up, but they're still less than 10 percent of the more than nine billion pounds of bags Americans use each year. Most of the remaining 90 percent still end up in landfills.

For NPR News, I'm Shia Levitt in Washington.

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