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Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

Posted October 15, 2015 10:04 AM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: plastic bag recycling waste

I've never really developed an effective at-home workflow for my plastic grocery bags. It seems that no matter how many times I try to reinforce the idea of bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, they pile up anyway. They're often repurposed as an impromptu lunch bag or dog waste collector, but the intake always seems to supersede the reuse.

Many believe that we have a global problem with plastic bags. They're everywhere. In the past week alone I've seen six or seven HDPE tumbleweeds coursing along a sidewalk or thwacking into my windshield on the highway. Plastic bags are produced and used in staggering amounts, kill livestock and marine life, have an incredibly short average use span, and take hundreds of years to break down but never fully biodegrade. So why are we still using them?

The plastic bag as we know it was developed in Sweden in the mid-1960s. Engineers at Celloplast were the first to patent and manufacture the bags, and the company operated as the near-sole producer worldwide until Mobil overturned their US patent in 1977. Plastic bags were popularized in the US by a few poly bag manufacturers, and plastic began to supersede paper in major grocery stores in the early 1980s. (Interestingly, there was considerable consumer backlash despite businesses pushing plastic, mostly because plastic bags with handles didn't come around until the 90s.)

The primary reason behind this popularity is fairly obvious: tensile strength. A bag's polyethylene variety--typically either high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), or linear LDPE (LLDPE)--determines its strength. Each of these materials has a different degree of polymer chain branching, so that LDPE dry cleaning bags tear so much more easily than those glossy, LLDPE "mall store" bags. Compared to paper, plastic bags seem like the bee's knees: they've got handles and rarely tear through the bottom; you don't need double-bagging unless you're carrying something like two gallons of milk in the same bag.

Environmentalists soon began realizing that plastic bags don't really go anywhere after they're used or reused. The late-1990s revelation of the Great Pacific garbage patch, a huge mass of rotating plastic waste caught in a gyre, ignited public acknowledgment of the plastic bag issue. After this point the plastic bag gradually attained its reputation as a drain-clogger, whale-choker, baby-suffocator, etc.

Jurisdictions in most areas of the world have placed restrictions on plastic bag use to counteract their negative effects. In 2008 China implemented a full ban on ultra-thin bags and a tax on plastic bags in general and has reduced usage by 50%. Many European countries tax single-use bags or push reusable bags. Some areas of the US have implemented localized bans, taxes, or both at the city or town level. Some countries such as Italy have only banned non-biodegradable bags.

Paper bags--the primary single-use alternative--are sourced from trees, so environmentally conscious consumers are put in a kind of ethical bind when visiting their grocery stores. What's more, a not-very-publicized UK study found that the average cotton reusable shopping bag is used about 50 times before it's discarded, but in most cases they must be used well over 100 times to be considered "better for the environment" than plastic bags.

In a world of paper vs. plastic vs. cotton, what's a consumer to do?

Image credits: zeevveez (CC BY 2.0) / Wikimedia

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#1

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 10:52 AM

I don't really consider it an issue being I have not seen a plastic bag of any sorts that stands up to normal weather and sunlight exposure for more than a few weeks now. Heck it getting hard to even find stuff made from plastic that is supposed to be for outdoor applications that doesn't rot after a few years now.

I have crack in my backhoe tractor seat that tends to collect water during harder rain so I started to put grocery bags and trash bags over it to keep from getting water in it. So farI have not found one that last more than a month out doors before the damn things become brittle and just fall apart. Give them six months of exposure and they turn to dust in your hands.

Cripes paper towels left out in the weather last longer now without falling apart.

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 11:15 AM

I've had very similar experiences. Sunlight kills everything. But on the other hand, plastic shopping bags that do not get repurposed at home get bundled together into a single bag along with bread bags and all other plastic bags, tied, and placed into our single stream recycling to be turned into deck boards or other useful materials. I see no reason to panic about our "addiction".

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#3
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 12:28 PM

I like to store things in the attic in a plastic bag to keep them clean. Unfortunately, I've picked the ecologically sound types that just leave a mess of plastic shreds.

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#21
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/19/2015 1:04 PM

those were made from corn.... and they are a mess.

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#23
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/21/2015 12:03 PM

We tried using a corn-based polymer to make an accessory to our product line here at the plant, and just having that go through one press made the whole press room smell like burnt popcorn.

And the smell lingered on the plastic, months of open-air storage and they still had a 'corn' smell to them when tested. Not the desired result when you want items with a 'neutral' smell.

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#24
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/21/2015 12:10 PM

For a sample of "That smell", leave a bag of microwave popcorn in the oven for way too long

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#25
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/21/2015 12:57 PM

Exactly, although, in retrospect, (it's been years since we rad that material), it was more of an 'almost starting to burn' smell, nothing acrid rancid or greasy like you'd get with microwave popcorn, but not quite the 'roasted corn on a BBQ grill' smell either.

Air-popped! that's the smell, like air-popped popcorn, but not faint like your usual home air poppers, no, it was heavy, almost undustrial, as if the exhaust of thousands of air poppers were being blown into one room, and the smell wasn't allowed to escape with the vacating air. It was like the Concentrated Essence of Air-popped popcorn, condensed into almost physical form...

(And I think I'm starting to veer, so self-marking as OT)

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#26
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/21/2015 3:21 PM

so,... degassing is always a problem with this type of process.

Can you trace and adjust the process where this occurs. I believe England is using corn based plastics on their bags....

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#27
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/21/2015 3:52 PM

One factor may me material thickness in the final product.

The part we were making is intended to support a 40 pound load, and is probably engineered to support 120-200 pounds, so the walls are rather thick, and the outgassing takes a long time before it achieves an 'almost neutral' odor (years after manufacture, if you put your nose right up to it, you can still smell the corn, faintly) but for thin-film plastic bags, may only take a few days after it's been pulled from its bundle and filled. (I'm assuming normal shipping & handling: secured into bundles while 'solid but warm;' bundles stacked into shipping boxes while 'just above room temperature;' kept sealed in the box until stationed at the checkout isle, and hung up on the rack by the bundle until filled and handed off to the customer.)

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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 1:11 PM
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 3:37 PM

Americans use 100 BILLION plastic bags a year.

That's 12 million barrels of oil each year to produce them.

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#7
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 7:46 PM

About a weeks worth of production here in North Dakota.

We've got you covered.

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#8
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 10:12 PM

Probably should've mentioned that in the post--"100 billion" sounds more severe than "staggering amount"...

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#9
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 11:41 PM

And that's just the USA.

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#22
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/19/2015 1:09 PM

a lot of the manufacturers that made machines that made plastic bags went out of business.... if they did not diversify or innovate (I hate that word)

just for the reason, that the price of a plastic bags already made was cheaper to buy from China than the price to make the bag domestically.

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#6

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/15/2015 4:04 PM

And what about all those golf balls? I find them in the forest bordering the course and return them to the patches of short green grass with the flag poles, sometimes I recycle several at once.

Everyone has to do their part.

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#10
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 12:00 AM

All joking aside, I find that the stuff breaks fairly quickly in sunlight (UV), but when wet it doesn't. What is the melting temperature of these things?

I'm gonna see what happens when I hit my pile with a heat gun. Maybe there is a re-use possibility that nobody has explored yet. If it melts at a low enough temp, it might be a good hot glue. In which case it could be formed by packing into a metal tube, heating and then pressing out into a stick.

It is a real problem, but with a little ingenuity can perhaps can be re-purposed.

If more than one use can be found for the material BEFORE it gets thrown out or "recycled" then we can have a real impact on the use of this stuff.

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#28
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/31/2015 1:14 AM

High Density Polyethelyne, (HDPE - recycle '2') which is what most bags are made from, becomes plastic at between 350 and 400 F. At these temperatures it can be molded into shapes that can either be used as they come out of the mold, or shaped easily with woodworking tools. I've used it to make tool handles and other things. I'ts annoying that since I discovered the process, many of the fast food shops are now turning back to paper. Paper's not bad except when you get greasy food. Then it gets all over everything.

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#14
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 4:24 PM

Do you play Bocce Ball and try to hit the little white ball that just rolled up on that pretty green golf course by the flag?

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#11

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 4:15 AM

HDPE (recycle 2) canbe reused for a great many things by melting it in the oven. It softens at b/t 350 and 400 degrees F without smoking or outgassing. It can be molded into many shapes. I've made tool handles and large mauls with it. Handy stuff!

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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 9:14 AM

What do you get if you combine all the variants of polyethylene in varying ratios? The bags can be conveyed easily enough (compressed air for example) but if necessary, how would these forms of poly be sorted?

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#13

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 9:30 AM

I use them for garbage bags. They often need to be doubled but it beats buying garbage bags. They are also useful as liners to keep the garbage pails clean around the house.

This is a "nice" second life for them as they are not good for anything else and it eliminates all the contamination issues associated with re-using them after the meat package dripped in them from the grocery store.

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#20
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/17/2015 9:54 PM

I do the same thing from time to time--usually until my better half gets tired of the bag filling up every few days and forces the return back to 13 gallon garbage bags.

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#15

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 4:32 PM

I do re-use them as cat litter waste bags. I double them, clean the 3 litter boxes and remove 15 - 18 lbs. of cat litter to the trash.

Yes, I have a lot of cats and kittens. We foster them until they can be adopted. We have 5 kittens available at the moment if anyone is interested!

I know I should use re-usable bags but the plastic works so well for the litter trash bags.

We do actually use re-usable crates in the back of the truck for groceries!

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#16

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 10:30 PM

We have a different problem here in LA County. Cities don't have to follow this rule, but some have done so. Grocery stores can no longer provide plastic bags to the clients AND they are required to charge $0.10/paper bag. Yes, they are REQUIRED to do this.

If someone is on public assistance, they get the cotton reusable bags for FREE.

I know that some of you are laughing (or crying), but it's true. Here's the ordinance: http://dpw.lacounty.gov/epd/aboutthebag/faq_stores.cfm

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#18
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/17/2015 9:59 AM

We have a similar rule here in Sonoma County. So far it has dramatically reduced the blow around baggage on the roads. There is still all the other garbage that blows around, but no more baggage!

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#19
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Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/17/2015 1:27 PM

I heard that Gov. Brown had signed a bill that does the same for the entire state, however there's a ballot referendum coming out in November 2016, to overturn the bill.

I'm not sure if this is a good thing for the state. Grocery stores are required to charge $0.10/bag and people on welfare get cotton bags for free. I just evicted a deadbeat tenant and she had filled the trash can with those so called "free" bags. I'm pretty sure that she didn't pay for them and you can bet that somehow we're paying for it.

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#17

Re: Getting Help For The World's Plastic Bag Addiction

10/16/2015 10:34 PM

Until the ban, we used these bags for dog clean up duties and I used them to carry supplies when working on our rentals. I like the convenience of having a relatively strong bag to carry my supplies. For instance, I could put all the pipe soldering tools and supplies in a bag, then in another the drywall tools and finally in another the boxes of nails/screws or electrical stuff or ...

When I go to Home Depot or Lowes, I try to get a few extras, but I notice that they seem to tear easier than the grocery bags - a tube of caulk will slice a hole in the bag!

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