I realize the default position of media writers is often snark, but this item didn’t start out that way, honest.
This morning, Star Tribune subscribers may have found their regular newspaper in a new wrapping — an “oxo-biodegradable” bag that breaks down if it becomes litter. According to Editor & Publisher, the Strib became the first paper in the nation to go completely biodegradable today.
Joel Kern of GP Plastics Corp. says if explosed to sunlight, the Strib bags will begin breaking down in three months and become “water, carbon and biomass” in a year. The Editor & Publisher story says landfilled wrappers break down in two or three years.
This all sounds very cool; a nod toward environmentalism, even amid tough financial times. But when I e-mailed City of Minneapolis Solid Waste Division Director Susan Young for her thoughts, here was the first sentence of her reply:
Young — a longtime public servant with a great sense of humor — says an effort like this “has NO green effects for the average person! The ‘oxo-biodegradable’ bag is no more ‘green’ than the blue plastic bag that my PiPress occasionally comes in.”
Here’s her argument: if you properly dispose of today’s bag in Hennepin County, it goes to the downtown garbage burner, and incinerates just like Sunday’s wrapper. (The new bags are still made of petroleum; the difference is a salt additive that speeds up breakdown in the sun, Kern notes.)
Young says the wrapper won’t break down in a landfill, which has neither sunlight nor oxygen. “That’s basically true,” Kern allows. “If it gets into a landfill, [oxo-biodegradable] doesn’t really matter. The same thing is true of the incinerator.”
(Could the green sleeves be composted? Nope, Young says: “You need extremely high temperatures — higher than any backyard pile — and the state’s single such facility isn’t taking more customers.”)
But what about the litter advantage? Here’s where views diverge.
Young contends bag degradation is mostly hype. “On the highway the ‘oxo-biodegradable’ bags will blow around and look ugly and shred into smaller and smaller ‘ribbons’ for a couple of years. (No, they don’t dissolve, or break into chunks.) So, if you don’t mind looking at plastic streamers in the trees and shrubs along the highway, I guess that they’re OK.”
Kern, who seemed like a decent guy, says “ribboning” is a first step, but in about a year, as a bag is battered by the elements, the ribbons break down into tiny chunks small enough for bacteria to eat.
The Strib folks didn’t call me back, but I’m willing to bet they honestly sought the evironmental plus, even with the green marketing advantages. The bags have water-soluble inks and non-lead-based colors — all good, though previous Strib wrappers have had these properties, too.
Sure, the paper could green up more if it didn’t wrap so relentlessly — but it’s been awhile since I’ve burned fossil fuels to bake a soggy paper, so there’s that. (You could also say as page counts shrink, the paper’s becoming more environmentally friendly, but then you’d be snarky.)
There is one thing that troubles me, though.
I asked Kern if the bags cost more. He said they did.
I don’t know if the Strib is spending up (they’ve changed suppliers as well as bag technologies), but if they’re forking over more cash, it comes at a time when the newsroom is being asked to take a $2.5 million hit. Given the very limited environmental advantage, any spare shekels are better spent on what’s inside the wrapper.