While doing research on how to make the next city more attractive, usable, and sustainable, I ran across what seemed at the moment like a tiny little detail – plastic bags.
It turns out that perhaps this is not such a little thing at all. It turns out that every year 5 trillion plastic bags are manufactured, and only 1 in 200 is recycled (Worldwatch Institute). The rest hang in our trees, or poison the oceans, causing huge wildlife and pollution problems. It takes 300 years or so for a plastic bag to biodegrade. Oh, and manufacturing them requires 10,000,000 barrels of oil every year. First commercially available plastic bag: 1957. The first city in the U.S. to ban plastic bags: San Francisco, in 2007. Makes sense – plastic bags pollute and create big problems, so we’ll simply replace them, right?
But it further turns out that making bags out of paper uses more water and more resources. Recyclable yes, but more energy and resource intensive.
But now you can buy biodegradable bags – bags that are made of corn starch or equal, and biodegrade in about 18 days. Perfect solution, yes? At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, officials recycled/composted 76% of all bags, containers, even utensils made of the stuff. Any size, any shape, even plates, knives, forks, spoons. Great – next issue?
But – hold on a minute. They’re not easy to reuse, especially when they get wet. They compost, but they are not without their critics – they don’t degrade well in landfills, and perform best in controlled composting. Their manufacture throws a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, and though they come from renewable sources, their cultivation requires a lot of energy, fertilizer and chemicals, and water.
So this seemingly little plastic bag thing quickly leads us to a whole range of much larger issues. Most cities are not set up for controlled composting. Lots of city dwellers compost, and many cities encourage citizens to compost in their yards, or apartments, but not many have actual municipal facilities to handle compost. (If only we had enough urban farmers to demand tons of compost…). As near as I can tell, DC does not have any kind of municipal composting program at all.
All of this is to suggest that our cities are really not set up for a better future. A good example of how we do not have the right infrastructure for the next city? Toronto. It turns out that they recently announced a plan to build two organic waste facilities for their “Green Bin” program, giving them a capacity of 110,000 tons of organic waste per year. Great. But.
Toronto city council recently approved a contract for solid waste pickup and removal. It turns out that Toronto is shipping 800,000 tons of trash to MICHIGAN every year. 90 semis of trash a day, traveling to a landfill in Wayne County, Michigan, 256 miles away. It is costing Toronto nearly $50,000,000 a year to do this, notwithstanding what it’s costing all of us in wasted resources, wear and tear on roads and infrastructure, additional traffic, and lots of air pollution.
I guess the little things really do add up – or as Mies loved to say, “God is in the details.”