Storing Produce, Compostable Bags, and the Four Rs

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, Curtain Lace Produce Bags, and also springs from the comments following a post on This Sorta Old Life in which Rita was making reusable grocery bags.

First off, there was some question as to how I used my curtain lace produce bags, and what I did with produce items which needed to be wrapped in plastic in the fridge.  I had always assumed certain items, such as salad greens and broccoli, needed to be wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator, and if I didn’t have a plastic produce bag I’d either use a bread bag for wrapping, or place the item in a closed plastic container.  But I recently came across what looks to be a really valuable resource on the Washington’s Green Grocer website. They list (seemingly) every imaginable type of produce, and give instructions on the way to store it without the use of plastic.  So for example, this is their advice on broccoli:

Broccoli‐ place in an open container in the fridge or wrap in a damp towel before placing in the fridge.

If you’re interested in reading further, the complete list can be found here:

http://www.washingtonsgreengrocer.com/everything-else/storage-tips/how-store-vegetables-fruit-without-plastic.htm

Handy, eh?

Secondly, during the discussion following Rita’s post, compostable produce bags were floated as an alternative to conventional produce bags.  (The store I shop at supplies only conventional produce bags, so for me, compostable produce bags are a moot point, but depending on where you live, compostable produce bags may be making an appearance at your local stores).  Because I remembered reading something about problems arising from biodegradable bags, I promised to look into it.

Here’s the information I found regarding compostable bags:

  • The term biodegradable is not equivalent to the term compostable.  Biodegradable simply means that the bag will break down; it doesn’t speak to the end product, or the time frame.  In the early days of biodegradable and compostable bags this may have caused problems, as bags which weren’t truly compostable broke down into small bits of plastic which then contaminated compost streams.  The term compostable is now governed by US or European standards for compostability (ASTM D6400 or ASTM D6868 or EN 13432) which ensures that bags will break down completely into organic matter within a certain time frame, under municipal composting conditions.  The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) tests bags to ensure they meet these standards. Bags which are approved are BPI certified and will carry the BPI compostable logo. When researching this, I looked for compostable bags in my grocery store, and came upon boxes labeled similar to this logo, which means the US Composting Council, in collaboration with BPI, has tested and approved the bags for compostability.  If you’re participating in a municipal composting program, your city’s website should provide information on what to look for when purchasing bags.
  • Compostable bags can be invaluable when it comes to municipal composting programs, but their use in backyard compost systems seems to be questionable, as these systems may not provide the conditions necessary to fully compost these bags.

When considering the use of compostable bags for purposes other than municipal composting programs, it’s worth keeping in mind the following:

  • Compostable bags are made of vegetable matter, usually corn.  This means crops are being grown for the production of bags, rather than to provide food for either people or animals.
  • Like their plastic counterparts, it takes energy to manufacture compostable bags.
  • Compostable bags are still considered single-use, just like conventional plastic bags.
  • Compostable bags which end up in the conventional plastic recycling stream are considered a contaminant.  Because their chemical composition is completely different than plastic, they cannot be recycled along with regular plastic bags.
  • Compostable bags do not biodegrade properly in a landfill, as there is insufficient oxygen and light present to fuel the reactions.

Compostable bags do have one certain advantage over conventional plastic bags:  because they are made of vegetable matter, they can — given the proper conditions — return entirely to nature.  In the big picture though, it seems to me that any wholehearted endorsement and promotion of the use of compostable bags for anything other than municipal composting programs goes hand-in-hand with the misguided thinking that the 3 Rs — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — are equivalent.

Now, I honestly don’t know if the person who came up with the 3 Rs catch-phrase intended the order of the 3 Rs to be of significance, but this is something well worth thinking about; environmentally speaking, Reduce and Reuse are much more important than Recycle.

Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t seem to be common knowledge.  The prevailing mindset about the 3 Rs still tends to be that if a product can be recycled, it’s all good.

An office using too much paper?  Don’t worry about it!  It gets recycled, so it’s all good. Still hooked on buying bottles of water?  We recycle, so it’s all good. Using plastic baggies for children’s lunches, rather than investing in containers?  Using them for only one lunch?  The school has a recycling program for plastic bags, so it’s all good.

Except … it’s not all good.

Recycling, while an extraordinarily useful and necessary process, isn’t the be-all and end-all of environmental stewardship.  A mindset which relies on throw-away products because of the holy grail of recycling fails to take into account the energy and raw materials which go into making the products, the energy and raw materials which go into packaging the products, the energy that goes into shipping the products, the energy which goes into collecting recyclables, and the energy which goes into recycling the products when their short life is spent.  That’s a lot of energy and raw materials we’re talking about!

So while the 3 Rs have been kicking around for quite some time, there’s another R that arrived on the scene a few years ago which is in dire need of some PR:

Refuse.

In other words, if you have the option, if you can see a way of getting by without using something disposable, even if that something can be recycled …

Just Say No!

Er … well … okay … the stereotypical Canadian in me is saying:

Just Say No, Thanks!

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(A housekeeping note:  I’m still having trouble with the mechanics of this blog.  Please bear with me as I try to sort out why I’m not getting email notifications on comments, and why previously-approved commenters are still having comments held for moderation. I’ve updated my theme, updated my settings, changed my theme … all to no avail … Pity the poor BlueHost rep who’s going to be bothered by me this weekend …)

2 thoughts on “Storing Produce, Compostable Bags, and the Four Rs

  1. I love the link to the info on how to store vegetables. After your last post, I was thinking I had to use plastic somehow. And I agree that the 3 R’s need to be updated and hire a new PR firm. Refusing is my tactic of choice these days.

    In our back to school shopping this year (OK, this isn’t quite refusing, I guess), we bought glass food storage bowls. I have vowed to never again buy those cheap plastic ones that are made to be easily replaced. It really wasn’t that expensive, and I’ve found that we are getting by just fine with fewer than we used to think we needed. I made the choice initially because I’ve become increasingly freaked out by what might be leeching out of the plastic and into our food, but I like knowing that I’m contributing to a small decrease in the demand for that plastic crap. (I know “crap” is an acceptable word here, so I feel OK using it. 🙂 )

    Like

    1. Yes, the cheap plastic containers (Rubbermaid TakeAlongs for example) are so incredibly NOT durable – a waste of money and bad for the environment as well! I’ve switched all my leftover storage (so anything that’s warm when put into the container, or anything that will get reheated) to glassware. I still use plastic containers (but the durable kind) for completely cooled baking (muffins or cookies), which goes into the freezer, or for kids’ lunches. I seem to recall reading something a few years ago that said that as long as no heating was involved, plastic was okay. The whole leeching business scares me too. I remember my mother saving yogurt containers and using them to store homemade soup (which she’d pour in while still hot), and then reheating it in the microwave … It makes me shudder now; I wonder what kind of toxic stuff my brother and I were exposed to as kids (and my parents as adults), in the days before any of us knew any better 😦

      And yes, crap is *totally* accepted around here 😉

      Like

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