Last week I started sorting through the facts about trash...


November 17, 1990|By John Javna | John Javna,The EarthWorks Group

Last week I started sorting through the facts about trash bags to find out which is better -- plastic or paper.

My conclusion is: neither. It's better to precycle and recycle. However, that's not going to eliminate all our garbage. So we're back to the original question.

I find it a little perplexing: On one hand, paper comes from renewable resources and is biodegradable; on the other hand, nothing readily decomposes in a landfill, so it doesn't matter. And because landfills are designed to keep things out of the environment, even if paper bags did degrade there, it wouldn't do us a lot of good.

Plastic doesn't seem much better. It's made with non-renewable resources and doesn't degrade under any circumstances. Biodegradable plastics are generally regarded as a fraud by the environmental community because, it is said, they don't really "biodegrade" -- they just break up into little pieces.

So what should we put our garbage in?

I thought I better do some calling around.

I tried my own town first and was surprised to find out there's a law requiring people to wrap kitchen garbage. The garbage doesn't have to be bagged -- it can be wrapped in old newspaper. So maybe that's one alternative.

It's clearly worthwhile to call your local refuse collector and see what laws apply to you. If there are no laws requiring "bagging," then you can always dump garbage directly from your indoor can to the can outside. Of course, you'll have to wash out your cans fairly frequently.

If your collectors do require garbage-bagging (or if you can't face the idea of not bagging the stuff), here are some other ideas:

* According to Jan Beyea, senior scientist from the National Audubon Society: "More important than what you bag your garbage in is that you always use bags that have been reused many times. Plus, try to avoid bags with inks, especially reds and yellows. They may contain heavy metals, like lead and cadmium, which can leach into and contaminate groundwater." He points out that grocery bags made from recycled paper and plastic are now becoming available and "it's important that shoppers ask their markets to use them."

* Isa Katto, recycling information coordinator for the Environmental Defense Fund, discourages using any "degradable plastic" bags for your garbage "because if these bags do break down, they may be toxic."

* A representative of the Berkeley Ecology Center suggests: "If you have old bags from the market, use them for your garbage. If you use cloth bags, see if you can't get your market or community to have an old-bag drop-off site for people who have extra bags." That way you can use bags that might otherwise get thrown away empty.

The EarthWorks Group

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