Plastic Bags as Savior – Part 2

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By Gerry Gillespie, Zero Waste Australia.

Following up on this blog post, Gerry Gillespie digs deeper on using the plastic bag as inexpensive collection infrastructure for local compost systems.

Marikina was not the first community to try a recycling program fueled by plastic bags. In a trial conducted in New Zealand in 1998,  called Tag Bagtm, households were asked to use the standard plastic shopping bag to separate their domestic waste into four categories.

They were given a simple sheet of instructions and asked to separate their waste into paper, recyclables, organic and residual waste.  The bags were  sealed with blue, yellow, green or red tape, depending on its contents and placed together into a single collection bin.

The bin contents were collected by a single truck and separated into their categories at the recycling station. Contamination from one material stream to another was minimal.

This trial had proven that the worst characteristic of the plastic bag, its environmental permanence – had made it the perfect piece of infrastructure to source-separate waste.  Once the plastic bag is used to collect waste materials, the bag itself is also captured for recycling or reuse.

All human populations produce organic waste suitable for composting in the growing, processing and preparation of food and to some extent, in food scraps after meals.

This same organic waste, when it degrades and rots, presents health problems for local communities when it is dumped near communities. When waste is present in market places and in close proximity to populations, it attracts vermin and associated disease.

In Curitiba, Brazil, the problems caused by waste in slum areas were addressed by a program, where the poor exchanged plastic bags of waste for food at government drop-off points. The net effect was a dramatic fall in community health costs due to the removal of organic waste.

Could it be possible to expand this type of program into any area where organic waste is causing health issues and wasteful plastic bags are present? While it may not be possible to collect and sell recycled materials in some parts of the world,  it is always possible to compost at any scale.

While organic material makes up more than half of the waste stream in most ‘developed’ countries, regardless of its quantity, compost can be processed through simple composting or worm farming in a small, enclosed area.

If people were given the ability to collect organic waste and compost it at no cost other than their labour, the end product could be very beneficial to the community.   Compost could help grow food in local communities, especially in areas with limited space in pots, tires, broken buckets and small garden beds.

Compost bins don’t need to be fancy bins; they can be made from ‘puddled’ mud, cement or clay bricks, mattresses, rammed earth, straw bales, old mattresses held in place with wooden sticks or poles, bundles of newspapers, logs or stones. Composting can provide the opportunity and the empowerment to people to grow their own food at a most elementary level.

By focusing the compost process on food production as a community benefit rather than composting as a waste reduction tool, it becomes impeccably clear that all things on this planet are resources, even plastic bags.

Edited by: Rachel Chibidakis

Photo by: Flickr user Kables, used under a Creative Commons license.


Plastic Bags as Savior – PART 1


By Gerry Gillespie, Zero Waste Australia

Following the recent devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it is time to revisit the links between the environmental damage of plastic bags and their potential as inexpensive collection infrastructure for local compost systems. Gerry Gillespie shares his views on the topic.

The plastic shopping bag in recent years has been become an environmental scourge. It seems there is no end to its production, size, shape and pollution levels, particularly in poorer communities. However, is it possible to change the role of the plastic bag from environmental vandal to local hero through a new found use in composting? Yes.

The plastic bag is deadly. Within the animal kingdom, bags populate our seas and farms where it kills thousands of animals by swallowing or tangling animals’ legs, beaks, wings or tails. What is more surprising, perhaps, is the devastating effects plastic bags have on the human population.

In Manila in 2009, it was estimated that Typhoon Ketsana killed more than 250 people when it struck the Philippines. In densely populated areas, Government authorities estimated that around 40% of the damage from the typhoon was caused by plastic bags blocking drains and increasing flooding in low-lying areas. Unfortunately, the poor often populate the low-lying areas.

The culprit was noticed. Subsequent community recycling programs in poorer areas such as Marikina, Philippines addressed both the excess of plastic bags and lack of recycling by using plastic bags to collect and recycle discarded materials from the streets. This video does a great job at illustrating this new program.

The new recycling programs were unprecedented as it’s a well-known fact that the poorer populations around the world do not have access to recycling programs. Indeed, the UN estimates that 48% of the world’s population does not have access to even an elementary garbage service.

The principal reason that nearly half of the world’s population has no garbage service is that they cannot afford to pay for the elaborate bins and vehicles used by the garbage industry. To that end, wealthy “trash” companies do not invest in access to the poorer populations, simply because there is no money in it!

Yet it seems, (like it or not) almost all populations have access to plastic bags. Regardless of the social demand for better packaging and bans by government, plastic bags have the same horrific environmental consequences. That is, unless plastic bags can removed from the environment through finding an ulterior “exit” use for them, possibly with community benefit.

This is where things become interesting and revolutionary. Given that many of the impoverished populations have the same two strikes, a lack of garbage services and a proliferation of dangerous plastic bags, is it possible to use the bags as infrastructure for collections of waste materials?

Edited by: Rachel Chibidakis