The most common question I am asked is “What can we use for bin liners as an alternative to plastic bags?” This is a very good question and I love the fact that people want to find an alternative to plastic bag bin liners - it’s a great place to start with reducing your plastic waste. But unfortunately, the answer to this is not so straightforward.
To answer this question, we need to look at a few things, and it’s best to start with what types of alternatives are on the market. There are a few options which are normally marketed as degradable, biodegradable and compostable.
Photo Credit @Twenty20
Degradable Bin Liners
Degradable quite honestly is a load of s**t! Plastic never really goes away, highlighted in my blog post “Plastic, oh how I loathe you“. Degrade means “to break up into smaller pieces” also known as Microplastics, which is what a normal plastic bag does anyway – degradable plastic just does this faster. Smaller pieces of plastic in the environment are just as damaging, if not more so, as the whole item, as they are consumed by all kinds of wildlife, eventually killing them. In landfill they do the same, breaking down into smaller pieces of plastic and releasing harmful chemicals.
Biodegradable Bin Liners
Biodegradable typically refers to plastics made of natural materials such as corn starch, or those made from petrochemicals containing additives that enhance biodegrading. These plastics are usually able to be decomposed naturally with the help of microorganisms, light and oxygen - returning them back to their natural state quicker and reducing the number of harmful chemicals being released. They do require the correct conditions to be able to do this and, in a landfill, it will usually take longer to decay than in “optimal” conditions. Bioplastics (made from natural materials) have the advantage of not using fossil fuels and so generally produce less carbon through their lifecycle, and they also tend not to release harmful chemicals through the biodegrading process.
Compostable Bin Liners
Compostable bags are similar to biodegradable ones, but they are "capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost such that the plastic breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with known compostable materials and leaves no toxic residue”. Sounds a lot like biodegradable, but the key difference is the rate at which it “composts” and that they can be turned into nutrient-rich organic matter. To achieve this, however, they generally require a commercial composting facility to reach the right conditions - therefore a compostable bag going to landfill can no longer be considered compostable, defeating the purpose of using them.
As you can see, there are some viable “plastic” options available to you if you want to reduce your environmental impact – they aren’t perfect, and it’s an emerging industry so there is still research being done on their viability and long-term impacts, and to ensure that the products do what they say they do.
Photo Credit @Twenty20
There are other alternatives, however. You could use paper bag bin liners – there are options which have waterproofing and strengthening to ensure you don’t spill the contents on the way to the wheelie bin. Making your own newspaper bin liners is another good option, especially if you still get the morning newspaper delivered, and there are plenty of YouTube videos out there which show you how to fold them. You can also put your waste straight into the bin and use no liner at all (yes this means you may need to clean it often), however, some rubbish collectors require your waste to be in a bag, so you need to take this into consideration. Greenpeace has created this handy video showing you alternative bin liner options.
So, what do we do? Well, true to the refuse, reuse and recycle mantra, we reuse paper bags that we have collected over time as our bin liners. Nowadays we only produce a small paper bag of rubbish every month or so. Our food scraps are now composted so no food or liquids go into the paper bag – only dry waste. Using a paper bag or newspaper liner has the least impact on the environment over the plastic alternatives but going to landfill is still an issue on its own.
There is a lot to take in and to consider, that is why this question is never straightforward or short. The best answer, however, is another question - what do you put in your rubbish bin? Ultimately you want to be reducing the amount of waste you produce, so take a look at what you are putting into your bin and ask yourself “can I avoid or find an alternative to these items that produce less waste?”