New take on plastic vs. paper bags

Of all the simple-sounding environmental questions that vex consumers, paper vs. plastic grocery bags has received a huge amount of attention. Maybe that is because the question of paper or plastic is one that confronts consumers on a daily basis (along with “did you bring your own bag”).

We have reported before on cities banning plastic bags in their city limits, and others, like San Francisco, imposing big charges on the use of plastic bags in supermarkets. Most recently, one of the world’s big cities, New Delhi, the capital of India, is trying to reinforce its plastic bag ban (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/new-delhi-plastic-bans-india_n_1876565.html).

All of which makes developments at GXT Green very interesting (http://www.gxtgreen.com/page/menu_3/11600.html). This Massachussetts-based company claims to have a solution to the plastic vs. paper issue that would making consumption of plastic bags (relatively) guilt free, and sidestep cities’ concerns. GXT Green has launched EcoGrade Photo-Degradable Plastic Bags. GXT claims that the new bags:
  • Use 46% less plastic resin than ordinary plastic bags
  • Produce 34% less Greenhouse gas in pre-production
  • Use less energy in manufacturing than regular plastic bags
  • Are approved for recycling with other plastics
  • If littered or lost, degrade within 240 days of exposure to sunlight
  • Cost about the same as conventional plastic bags

GXT is understandably coy in its public announcements about exactly what these claims mean and how the new properties are achieved, but it appears that the bags contain HD polyethylene mixed with calcium carbonate, which acts as an oxidizing agent. The claim is that after exposure to sunlight, the bags biodegrade without the intervention of microbes or other chemicals — the degradation process takes 240 days. The secret is said to be a reaction between high-density polyethylene and calcium carbonate to produce an inert powder, which does not pollute. No methane is created in the degradation process. If the bags are incinerated, GXT claims that the resulting residue can be used as a soil conditioner.

If all of GXT’s claims are verified, the new bags do seem to represent a step forward in answering the question of plastic or paper. But they do not represent a complete solution. Natural resources are still being claimed for a disposable product — which is not a sustainability argument. Even with the new bags, consumers will still have to think hard before they make their choices among plastic, paper and cloth.

GXT deserves credit for innovating its new product, but this is a step in the right direction, not a complete solution.