Plastic bags built to be yesterday's news

Plastics makers are spinning newspaper and grocery bags out of greener plastics, although eco-watchdogs worry about long-term side effects.

Elsa Wenzel
3 min read

The Gray Lady may someday arrive at your doorstep inside a "green" plastic bag.

A company that makes delivery bags for The New York Times and other major newspapers has designed a plastic bag to biodegrade within three months.

GP Plastics' PolyGreen bags are made with fossil fuels, as are their traditional polyethylene counterparts.

However, a chemical added during manufacturing enables the plastic to be digested by microorganisms. The bags are supposed to disintegrate within a few months outdoors or three years in a landfill when exposed to oxygen and ultraviolet light, leaving behind little but water, carbon dioxide, organic metals, and salts.

The nontoxic, active ingredient speeding up the degradation includes a metal such as cobalt, according to Willow Ridge Plastics. It makes PDQ-H, an additive that enables PolyGreen's oxo-biodegradable plastic to be eaten by microbes.

GP Plastics each year sells some $100 million in plastics that include sleeves that shield newspapers in soggy weather. Customers include The New York Times, USA Today, the Boston Globe and other newspapers published by Tribune, Gannett, McClatchy, and Newhouse News Service.

Each year U.S. newspapers use 7 billion plastic delivery bags, according to the Dallas-based GP Plastics. When discarded, unfortunately, plastic breaks down into ever-tinier molecules, polluting ecosystems and harming the health of animals and humans.

"If you only saw some of the hate mail we get from people saying, 'Your product is clogging the landfills and waterways,'" said Mike Skinner, GP Plastics' chief financial officer. "Well, we're working as fast as we can on this. I don't think this will be the final answer, but it's a step in the right direction."

When San Francisco last March became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in supermarkets, GP Plastics protested. It and other plastics makers promoted bag recycling. However, only about 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled even in that city. The companies got to work building greener bags.

GP Plastics says its new newspaper sleeves cost only a fraction of a penny more than non-biodegradable ones.

Hilex Poly Company in Hartsville, S.C., announced last month that its new HED grocery bags will biodegrade in as little as eight weeks. In Britain, Symphony Environmental Limited's D2W plastic, like that of GP and Hilex, includes an additive to accelerate biodegradation.

Companies including BioBags have made biodegradable, compostable plant-based plastic bags for garbage and yard waste for many years. However, plastic bags made from corn tend to break down too quickly to keep a newspaper dry, if flung into a puddle.

Yet some environmental groups suspect that the rise of bioplastics will only add to pollution and global warming. They frown upon growing genetically modified corn for plastics and worry that, as with harvesting plants for biofuels, food supplies will become scarcer as a result.

And some watchdogs contend that chemical additives designed to make petroleum-based plastics degrade may prove in the long run to harm ecosystems. They are suspicious that the companies don't disclose the exact ingredients in their additives.

"There is no such thing as biodegradable plastics," said Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif., which campaigns against plastic pollution.

"They're still using petroleum, which is the No. 1 cause of global warming. What other kinds of chemicals are they putting in those plastic bags? If they're saying salts and metals, well metals are damaging in high quantities."

Barger would prefer that people tote reusable bags, which are becoming chic in some circles (and nearly ubiquitous in Ireland). And how to keep newspapers dry? She suggests separate mailboxes.

GP Plastics unveiled its biodegradable bags this weekend at the Newspaper Association of America Marketing Conference in Orlando, Fla.