Ecologically Challenged – A Plastic Drama

From the movie American Beauty
How ironic! – From the movie American Beauty

I swear people in Berlin use more plastic than anywhere else I have lived. I literally see bananas wrapped in plastic on a daily basis (or I would, if I saw bananas on a daily basis), and I feel like every time I go to the market, someone tries to coerce me into individually packing each of my lemons to afterwards put them in a bigger plastic bag.

Of course, like everyone else on this planet, I found an easy way out: reusable bags. Does that make it easier to turn down an eager clerk who wants to give you the gift of plastic? Unfortunately, no.

On top of this, it does not solve one of my recurring daily dilemmas: What am I supposed to put compost in at home?

Compost is gross, it smells and it decomposes. I know, I know, it’s how nature works, and that’s supposed to make it okay, but still I don’t love the organic (as in breeding ground for thousands of fruit flies) side of compost. And yet, I am glad I live in a city that collects organic waste. Incidentally, I also live on the 4th floor, which makes taking compost out on a daily basis a very tiresome task. I decided I had to switch from lining the bin with a plastic bag to a more eco-friendly option, like bio-degradable bags.

But I did some research and who would have guessed? Biodegradable bags are most often a terrible choice.

First, there are not all created equals. Some are truly biodegradable, they can be broken down by bioorganisms in the right conditions, some are advertised as such but are in fact just degradable (meaning they break down and then spread everywhere and get inhaled/eaten by animals) – make sure the labelling is clear and check your country’s standards.

Even biodegradable bags might not biodegrade so well if they end up in a landfill. It turns out, many landfills now try to reduce leaks and gas emissions from waste by keeping it tightly packed under dirt and clay, without contact with oxygen and light. In these circumstances, biodegradable plastic bags emit methane when they break down, a greenhouse gas that  traps over 20 times more heat than CO2. Not exactly helpful.
To be disposed of properly, these bags need to be sent to the right collection facilities, which are not available everywhere. In Toronto for instance, bagged organic waste will be removed from the bag, and the bag, regardless of whether it is biodegradable, will be sent to landfill.

And of course, they require energy and material to be produced – like everything, they have an impact on the environment. I have read in several instances that some biodegradable plastic bags are made from oil, however, I cannot find a source to confirm. But oil or natural gas extraction are not the only threat to the environment. Biodegradable plastic bags that are made from bio-material are most generally made out of plants that were treated with fertilisers (not great for the environment) or genetically-modified (not cool either). I had never thought of it, but of course, who would use organic corn to produce cheap trash bags?

So here it is. My dilemma. I guess I should not line my organic bin with anything and simply welcome the mess. Or stop eating fruits & vegetables altogether.

If you have a better idea, I welcome it!


SOURCES: 1, 2, 3, 4


Ecologically Challenged – A Plastic Drama

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