- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Plastic grocery bags: environmental curse or cure?

Unlike paper products that come from trees, a renewable resource, plastic items are a petroleum-derived material and almost never are biodegradable. That would seem to give the environmental advantage to paper bags — except that harmful chemicals and pollutants also are involved in the manufacture of paper.

The debate remains a standoff, with the choice in most places ultimately up to consumers. However, a number of countries and locales have chosen, or are considering, taxing both kinds of disposable bags and using the money for research and education.

Leading the charge on American soil, San Francisco city officials last fall tackled a proposal that would impose a 17-cent tax on each of the 50 million paper and plastic grocery sacks used there each year — the amount that city’s Environment Department reported was the per bag figure the city paid in cleanup and other costs.

“In the United States, according to the latest statistics, only 7 percent of all plastics are recyclable,” says Mark Robitalle, president of Omnipast Inc., the Canadian company that makes plastic bags for Ikea stores in the United States.

Meanwhile, industry is trying to find new uses for those kinds of plastic that can be recycled, often in new ways.

“A lot of research is being done,” he adds. “In terms of recycling, the idea is to reduce the amount of material used in polyethylene bags. Higher quality resins [a petroleum product] are available now so that we can make bags thinner and just as strong.”

According to the Web site of the Washington-based Film and Bag Federation (FBF), part of the Society of the Plastics Industry (www.plasticsindustry.org), “plastic bags have reduced their use of material by 30 percent in just five years, without decreasing strength.”

“Every bag is a film product, as is stretch wrap,” explains FBF Executive Director Donna Dempsey. Resin pellets are heated to make polyethylene film, which then can take many forms, including plastic bags.

Ongoing research involves finding uses for “end-of-life bags” as well as making better bags using fewer resources, or “how to make a more durable bag so that it can be reused again and again,” says Tony Kingsbury, a chemical engineer with Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.

“The reality is that there is far more demand for recycled bags than there is supply,” he claims, citing Trex Co. of Winchester, Va., as a leader in the field of recycling bags. “Instead of cutting down forests, they use plastic and ground-up wood waste to make a composite for decking and railings. The combination wood and plastic doesn’t splinter and doesn’t need to be pressure treated because bugs don’t like to eat plastic.

“The real issue is that people are not recycling,” he notes. “It’s amazing. If you look around, more stores have collection bins, but we [hardly] ever see them.”

At present, all polyethylene grocery bags are recyclable, but consumers generally are not being made aware of it, says Mike Vituna, the FBF chairman who is director of bulk materials for Trex. As the man in charge of buying the raw materials for the plant, he believes strongly in recycling for several reasons. Bags that are not recycled inevitably end up in landfills where they do not easily — or ever — break down.

For almost a decade, Trex has combined the ubiquitous grocery bag and stretch wrap with wood waste to make an “alternative” or simulated lumber as opposed to the traditional pressure-treated all-wood product. The plastics division of Mobil Corp., which made grocery bags, pioneered the method as far back as 1987 under the name Timbrex. Four Mobil officials later bought the formula and started Trex.

Area residents familiar with the mile-long boardwalk around Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac have walked on their product, now sold in major supply stores and lumberyards.

High-density resins are used to make such items as milk containers, while a lower density resin goes into the polyethylene bag. Trex could use the higher density resin products for recycling as well, but chose to stick to grocery bags “because it is hardest to find a use for them,” Mr. Vituna says.

Company figures state that it is the leading consumer of reclaimed stretch film in the country, taking in about 20 percent of the total amount being recycled. That includes protective ground cover used in agriculture, especially in California, as well as plastic collected curbside by municipalities. A 2-by-6-inch board 16 feet long uses about 2,250 plastic bags and an equal amount of wood waste. A thousand plastic bags weigh about a pound.

“I’ve got one of best jobs in the country,” Mr. Vituna boasts, “because I take stuff that would normally go into landfill and at the same time we make something of value and replace what would normally have to be made of trees that are cut down.”

The company has contracts with some of the country’s leading food chain and retail stores to buy millions of pounds of reclaimed and recycled bags, which they say is nearly half of all recycled grocery bags available. An equal amount of raw material comes from reclaimed pallet wrap and waste hardwood sawdust to make about 1 million pounds of the finished composite product daily.

Most of the finished product is decking, representing about 10 percent of the decking industry, available in several different textures and colors. “The big difference between this product and wood is this one has a more substantial feel,” says plant manager Robert Thibodeau.

All colors of grocery bags are collected and used in the mix. “With the five colors of boards we have, we can pick the kind of bags being used,” says John Burns, Trex marketing director. “When we know there is a load from Wal-Mart, we will save the load for when we are running a darker color. If we run a lighter color, we can call up bags from Food Lion that uses white and beige.” Colorants also are added.

At the plant, a Capitol Records vinyl record production plant until 1993, huge bales of compressed bags arrive on trailers for a final screening by hand to sort out any contaminants — bottles, fruit peels, metal pieces and the like. Wood waste is ground up and bags are shredded into dime-size pieces before being mixed by heat into a sticky substance that, when cooled, turns into solid planks, all in less than an hour.

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