The Quick Breakdown on 100% Degradable Plastic

I recently spotted this shopping bag at an upscale sandwich shop and took pause. What is this bag made of? The fine print reads:

This environmentally responsible plastic bag is based upon oxo-biodegradeable technology and will first degrade, then biodegrade in the presence of moistrure, micro-organisms, oxygen & soil.

Let’s “break this down” so to speak. First of all, plastic bags typically photodegrade which allows tiny micro organisms like plankton in the ocean to consume the plastic thinking it is food. This bag says it will biodegrade — that’s a start.

According to the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Institute website, that’s because of a proprietary additive introduced into the Polyethylene, which accelerates the breakdown and makes the composition “amenable to conversion by micro-organisms.” Sounds frightening, but if you see the world at a molecular level perhaps it is perfectly reasonable to turn plastic into food.

But where will this bag decompose? In a landfill? Nope…nothing decomposes in our landfills, they are designed specifically to prevent decomposing. In your personal compost bin? Perhaps, but chances are it will take many, many, years for this bag to break down in your home spun worm bin. In an industrial compost bin? Probably, but is that really something to talk about? Industrial compost bins use high heat to speed up the decomposition process, thus using more valueable resources to despose of your waste.

Don’t let those green rolling hills, blue lake, and 100% degradable message confuse you, this bag is not the solution. It’s an interesting idea, a cog on the wheel of progress, but really it is another bandaid over our larger consumption problems.  Next time I get a sandwich I’m going to consider bringing a lunch box or better yet, bring that bag back to the sandwich shop and keep reusing it till it falls apart naturally.

The latter really speaks to where I’d like to see the world of design headed. Imagine if everyone designed bags, brochures, and in general, stuff, with the intention that you’d keep using it over and over till it fell appart. I bet they’d consider what it looked like, how it worked, and how it really performed much more.