Green Junction: Are Plastic Waste Bags Our Best Choice? by Julie Peller, Ph.D.

A walk around a typical neighborhood on garbage collection day (especially after Christmas) confirms our entrenched throwaway culture and the acceptance of plastic bags for garbage disposal.  A convincing yet erroneous message on waste disposal is that plastic garbage bags are the best choice. However, the reality is that the widespread use of plastic garbage bags has exasperated our waste problem. 

Last year, my university partnered with the county’s recycling and waste reduction district to study waste and implement waste reduction measures. The county supported student interns who spent months collecting and assessing the garbage and recycling containers around campus. A number of other students also participated in the less-than-glamorous work of inventorying waste. An eye-opening fact from this work was the university was creating a significant amount of plastic waste in its normal collection of recycling and waste materials.

Decomposable materials (food waste, paper, etc.) are common in plastic garbage bags, which are mostly non-decomposable. These contents are trapped in a non-natural environment that delays normal decomposition. Other problems associated with plastics include the pollution created by their manufacture from fossil fuels, the constant release of micro and nanoplastics, and the leaching of numerous toxic additives.

The university is now cutting down on plastic garbage bags, planning to collect recyclables without plastic bags (which are not accepted in most recycling facilities), and implementing reuse items to significantly reduce garbage. We have started assisting and encouraging others in the community to do the same, and the county has designed a logo for businesses that participate in waste reduction. From Pope Francis’s prayer, “Bring healing to our lives that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.” 

Happy New Year to all. 🙂

Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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