The Price of Convenience: Examining the ZipLoc Bag
Convenience is irresistible. As indispensible as they seem, It's hard to believe that the modern plastic sandwich bag did not exist as we know it before the 1970s. And now? Similar to Kleenex and facial tissue or Band-Aid brand and bandages, ZipLoc is synonymous with the plastic storage bag; no one says, "Do you have a plastic storage bag I can put these leftovers in?" They ask for a ZipLoc bag. Plastics did not become really popular until after World War II, when petroleum became more readily available (petroleum and natural gas are the primary sources of the key ingredients in plastic). ZipLoc bags are relatively cheap, disposable, and a wonderful tool for not just food storage but organization in general. But for some reason, ZipLoc bags don't receive nearly as much negative attention as their close cousin, the plastic grocery bag.
What are ZipLoc bags made of?
Like plastic grocery bags, Ziploc bags (and other sandwich bags) are made with a product known as “film” in the recycling industry. Film is clear, thin plastic made of either LDPE (low-density polyethylene), which corresponds to the recycling #4, or HDPE (high-density polyethylene), or HDPE, which corresponds to the recycling #2.
Can ZipLoc Bags Be Recycled?
According to the 'Sustainability' section on SCJohnson's ZipLoc website, bags can (theoretically) be recyled. However, almost all curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic bags – so plastic bags need to be dropped off at grocery stores or other retailers with plastic bag recycling programs. If you put plastic bags in your curbside recycling bin, they often clog machines at recycling facilities and thus actually hinder the recycling process. Most people aren't going to take the time to rinse the spaghetti sauce, bread crumbs and mustard, or grease out of a ZipLoc bag; it's time-consuming and harder to clean than a rigid, reusable container. If consumers are buying ZipLoc bags because they're convenient and they're advertised as being convenient, it doesn't make much sense to rely on those same consumers to go through the inconvenience of cleaning and recycling them.
According to SCJohnson's own data, only 1/5th of 1 percent (.2%) of Ziploc® brand bags sold are actually recycled. Most recycling facilities in the U.S. “hand-pick” the Ziploc® brand bags out of the recycling stream and send them to the landfill.
It's helpful to remember that, even if a plastic container or product has a recycling code on it and is tossed into the curbside bin, it isn't necessarily going to be recycled and may still be landfilled or incinerated. Recycling is all about supply and demand. Without a market demand, those recyclables are useless; placing them in the recycling bin won’t make a difference if money can't be made off them. Cheap oil and gas mean cheap plastic. When the price of purchasing a new piece of plastic is far cheaper than recycling plastic, demand for recycled plastic drops.
So, what happens to the .2% of Ziploc bags that actually are recycled? In a nutshell, SCJohnson uses virgin plastic resin to create new bags, and the old bags are downcycled into products that cannot be further recycled. Plastic film and bags are used to make composite lumber for making decks, benches, and playground sets (composite lumber is a mix of plastic bags and wood scraps, such as sawdust and old pallets). This type of lumber is long lasting, durable and a low maintenance decking and outdoor construction option. The Trex Company and Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. are the main manufacturers of this type of lumber in the U.S. Plastic film can also be reprocessed into small pellets, which can be made into new bags, pallets, containers, crates, and pipe. According to the American Chemistry Council, in 2016 U.S. and Canadian processors recycled 47 percent of the 1.3 billion pounds of plastic film recovered; the other 53 percent was exported to places like China. I would imagine the 2018/2019 numbers will be quite different given the drastic post-tariff changes in the Chinese plastic market.
Rethinking the Sandwich Bag
SCJohnson's Evolve plastic bags, no longer on the market, had 'made with wind energy' on the box. In a world of rampant greenwashing, bold claims are shown no mercy. Was SCJohnson actually manufacturing the bags with wind energy? Apparently, the company was doing what's called an "offset," similar
to paying a company to plant trees to make up for a carbon-heavy plane trip, or UPS's 'Carbon Neutral' shipping option (the shipper elects to pay increased cost for shipping their package, and UPS uses those fees to offset the carbon output of shipping it by making carbon-reducing investments). S.C. Johnson had purchased "significant amounts of wind energy" from Spartan Renewable Energy, and that wind energy was 'inserted into the grid that services the Bay City plant, where the Evolve bags are manufactured." So, I guess the answer to the question of whether or not the bags were made with wind energy is, 'Well, sort of.'
To be fair, as of 2017, three of SCJohnson's manufacturing sites now run on 100% wind energy – those in Bay City, Michigan; Mijdrecht, Netherlands; and Gorzow, Poland. Company-owned wind turbines produce about half the energy needed to run the three million square foot Netherlands plant, while the remaining energy is purchased wind power. Bay City and Poland run on 100% purchased wind power.
The Problem with Compostable Bags
Supposedly SCJohnson has created a line of compostable plastic sandwich bags . Of course, the problem with compostable products is that the U.S. does not have the industrial
composting infrastructure to support them; most of these products end up in landfills or incinerators as they cannot be composted at home. I haven't been able to find the bags anywhere; they were only offered for sale online but a thorough Google search cannot seem to find anyone selling them.
The Benefits of Plastic Wrap and Bags
An argument can be made (and has been made) that plastic baggies and plastic wraps reduce food waste by keeping food fresher longer and reducing spoilage (however, a recent study in Europe largely debunks those claims, showing that plastic does not systemically reduce the food waste problem). And plastic freezer bags enable consumers to buy in bulk by conveniently storing and freezing food for later use. But the nagging question remains: if these bags are so indispensible, how on earth did we survive without them for so long? Companies often say that they merely make and sell products that the public demands; if the demand for these bags didn't exist, they wouldn't be produced or sold. However, it's also the case that advertising, marketing, and huge multinational companies create demand that did not previously exist. Consider the case of the plastic grocery bag: By the end of 1985, 75 percent of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers. However, customers still preferred paper bags—plastic held just 25 percent of the market. But Mobil and its plastic manufacturing division was working to change that. Within the next decade, the plastic bag had captured 80 percent of the market.
Is it Unfair to Pick on Massive Consumer Goods Companies like SCJohnson?
From frozen dinners to infant formula, from microwave ovens to sandwich bags, for years we've stood in awe of modern innovations that supposedly make life easier. SCJohnson and other companies quietly worked in the background without much fanfare making convenience items like sandwich bags and plastic beverage bottles widely available. Only recently has a mainstream public backlash really started growing over single-use plastic and the 'plastic problem'. Now, companies like SCJohnson and Johnson & Johnson (note: the two
companies are not related at all) are faced with consumer backlash over the environmental or human health impact of basic, everyday, 'boring' products like baby shampoo and plastic bags. The consumer now has unprecedented access to information and social media - never before have consumer goods companies been subject to such scrutiny. Large, multinational consumer goods companies are now in a position where they have to explain why they've been making products that are seen as harmful to the environment or human health for so long. In response, through intense public relations campaigns, advertising, and outreach, these companies are striving to convince the consumer that their products have ALWAYS been sustainable and safe.
These companies have the dollars and the market share to truly make an impact - moving toward more sustainable living in the U.S. must begin with them. They must work WITH the consumer and with local and national governments and be responsive to concerns, as opposed to simply blaming the consumer for their scientific 'ignorance' or laying the blame (and the bill) of the environmental impact of their products and packaging at the foot of consumers and muncipalities . These companies are losing the consumers' trust, which is priceless (for example, Johnson's baby products have lost more than 10 percentage points of share in the U.S. over the past five years) - working together is how to gain it back.
But Doesn't Promoting and Facilitating Recycling of These Bags Encourage Their Production and Use?
I was asked that question at a sustainability conference I recently spoke at. And it's a good question. Pink Elephant Products collects plastic film as part of our recycling program. My opinion is that realistically speaking, plastic bags and 'unrecyclables' like potato chip bags and candy bar wrappers aren't going anywhere anytime soon. A sea change in consumer habits and a stronger emphasis on extended producer responsibility needs to happen to make any real dent in the plastics problem. Bread bags, fruit and vegetables, take-out food, lunch meat - when we actually start to think about how much plastic is in our lives, it's mind-boggling. It's usually taken for granted, like background music - it's not something most consumers really think much about, save for writing 'ZipLoc bags' on their big-box store shopping list. All that plastic has become so much a part of daily life that replacing it will be extremely challenging.
In order for its recycling to make sense, plastic film needs to be recycled in large volumes. It makes sense for us to collect it from dozens of customers - it's the same case with Tetra-Paks (shelf-stable cartons) and other 'unrecyclables'. Sending in a large volume of material in one shipment is more environmentally friendly than many customers sending in very small volumes to our recycling partners.
I put 'unrecyclable' in quotes because it's generally not the case that ANY material is truly 'unrecyclable' - it's usually just so cost prohibitive and difficult to recycle that it's far cheaper and easier just to make new packaging. I do agree that dilemma really shouldn't fall on our shoulders - if a manufacturer creates packaging that is 'unrecyclable', that same manufacture should be paying for the infrastructure and systems to get it recycled. If they're collecting the profit on the product's sale and consumption, then they should be paying for its environmental impact, too.
Terracycle currently has a few free programs for unrecyclables funded by the manufacturers (the wait list for the free snack bag recycling program is over 1,500 people long). Most of the programs, however, require purchasing a 'waste box' that gets filled up and sent back to Terracycle for processing. These boxes are prohibitively expensive for many consumers (the small zero waste box is $184!). There are pricey boxes for nearly every kind of waste stream imaginable, from office supplies to ear plugs. So, theoretically you can 'Recycle Everything' - as long as you're willing to either to pony up the Benjamins for the zero waste box or many different single waste stream boxes. I think the manufacturers creating products in single-use or unrecyclable packaging should be using their profits to fund most, if not ALL, of these programs.
We're trying to offer alternatives to some of the products we accept for recycling. Pink Elephant offers many options for plastic-free and reusable food and beverage storage such as stainless steel lunch containers, reusable sandwich bags, and cloth fruit and veggie bags. Soon we'll be rolling out a plastic wrap alternative made with cotton and beeswax. However, these options can be a tough sell. We can't make people buy them, and it's challenging to compete with the convenience of plastic. But we're not giving up any time soon.
What Happens to Grocery Bags when they Get Recycled? The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: https://education.seattlepi.com/happens-plastic-grocery-bags-recycled-4791.html
Plastic packaging failing to prevent food waste crisis, new study finds. Zero Waste Europe: https://zerowasteeurope.eu/2018/04/plastic-packaging-failing-to-prevent-food-waste-crisis-new-study-finds/
Are Plastic Ziploc Bags Suddenly Green or Greenwashed? My Plastic Free Life: https://myplasticfreelife.com/2012/11/are-plastic-ziploc-bags-suddenly-green-or-greenwashed/
Who Made That ZipLoc Bag? New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/who-made-that-ziploc-bag.html
How the Plastic Bag Became So Popular The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/how-the-plastic-bag-became-so-popular/381065/
Are Ziploc Evolve Bags Really 'Made With Wind Energy? Jim Motavalli, AOL.com
Recycling Ziploc® Bags: Getting Communities Closer to Curbside Recycling for Plastic Film SCJohnson. https://www.scjohnson.com/en/our-purpose/environmental-responsibility/improving-products/recycling-ziploc-bags-getting-communities-closer-to-curbside-recycling-for-plastic-film
The plastic backlash: what's behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/13/the-plastic-backlash-whats-behind-our-sudden-rage-and-will-it-make-a-difference
A Brief History of Plastic's Conquest of the World:Cheap plastic has unleashed a flood of consumer goods. Scientific American
Renewable Energy Powers SC Johnson With the Use of Wind, Solar, Food Waste, and Trash. SCJohnson. https://www.scjohnson.com/en/our-purpose/environmental-responsibility/minimizing-our-footprint/renewable-energy-powers-sc-johnson-with-the-use-of-wind-solar-food-waste-and-trash