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Compostable Produce Bags: All You Need to Know

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With the global climate crisis threatening the world in which we live, many people are looking for ways to do their part to help the environment. While big shifts are necessary if we hope to avoid disaster, small changes can add up as well. There are so many tiny steps each of us can take in our daily lives, and every little thing helps. One easy adjustment to make involves the bags we use and the impact they have on our environment.

Everyone knows that plastic takes ages to degrade and has a severely negative impact on our planet in all forms. Single-use plastic grocery and produce bags are an easy place to make a change. Many grocery stores are swapping out their standard plastic grocery and produce bags for biodegradable or compostable options.

The Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable

grocery bag with vegetables


Compostable produce bags are made from 100% plant-based materials. These break down at the same rate as other food waste and can be disposed of in a standard composter. They are a great alternative to plastic bags and an easy change to make. You can start by using these bags for your food waste and slowly extend from there. However, there are still better options available, which we will get to shortly.

Biodegradable bags are not nearly as great as their name suggests. Technically, compostable produce bags are a type of biodegradable bag. However, the other bags that fall in this category are not nearly as eco-friendly. Standard biodegradable bags are still made from plastic. The difference is that it contains additional materials to break down much faster than other plastic bags. 

These bags may not continue to occupy space in a landfill for as long as normal plastic bags, but that is really their only good quality. Producing biodegradable bags is still incredibly harmful.

Not All Compostable Produce Bags Will Break Down in Your Home Compost

autumn leaves compost


Some bags are labeled as compostable but will only break down correctly in high enough temperatures. Your home compost system may not do the trick. These bags may need to be processed in special facilities where the compost is guaranteed to reach the desired levels.

Some bags are specifically marked as 'home compostable.' These should meet the necessary conditions to be composted at home. However, if your bag does not have that labeling, it can be challenging to know if the bag will break down in your home system as you desire.

Compostable Produce Bags Are Still Single-Use

biodegradable grocery bag


While compostable produce bags are a far better option since they are made from plant-based materials, they are still single-use bags. One of the biggest problems with our consumer-based economy is that we treat nearly everything as disposable. With the products we purchase, there is always a new and better version right around the corner. 

Most people make very few of their purchases with the future in mind. It is all about the latest technology, and society pressures people to have the most up-to-date version. Because of this, we quickly use up and dispose of products, and we package all these items in similarly disposable containers. This view pervades all areas of our modern lives.

When people go to the grocery store, they have been conditioned to put their fruits and vegetables in the plastic produce bags provided by the shop. Then they put those plastic bags into other plastic bags at check-out. Even though many stores are replacing their plastic bags with compostable ones, the larger issue is not really being addressed. 

Before plastic came into common use, paper bags were all the rage in grocery stores. Before paper bags, goods were typically moved around in various reusable bags. The paper bag was invented in the first half of the 19th century and quickly gained popularity due to its ease to produce and convenience to use.

That is over 200 years of conditioning we have to overcome to return to regular usage of reusable shopping bags. While we are all aware that it is the best thing to do, bad habits can be hard to break. We must refocus on sustainability over convenience.

Making Compostable Produce Bags Takes Energy

grocery store design


While making a compostable produce bag may use relatively little energy compared to the production of many other bags, the cost is still there. Creating a single reusable canvas tote bag has a greater environmental impact in the production phase than creating a single compostable bag. 

However, one reusable canvas tote bag can replace hundreds and even thousands of compostable produce bags otherwise used by a consumer. The energy used to create that one canvas bag pales compared to the amount necessary to replace it with compostable bags.

Even though compostable produce bags come from renewable plant-based materials, they still require far more resources in the long run to make enough to replace one reusable canvas grocery bag. 

The three R's in conservation are Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While they all help the environment, recycling is by far the least efficient of the three. Reducing and reusing products should be the greater focus of our energies, but compostable containers are centered around recycling. They are a good step in the right direction, pushing to eliminate plastic bag usage. However, they are far from an ideal solution.

The Cost of Reusable Bags

fruits sit in clear reusable tote bags


It is hard to find a grocery store that does not sell reusable grocery bags, and many grocers also stock reusable produce bags. While there is a cost to purchasing these bags, they can be used for years, and the larger grocery bags can serve many different functions. Unlike most products, reusable bags are not designed for obsolescence. Because of this, purchasing a few reusable grocery bags and reusable produce bags should not be a big hit to your finances. 

If you are fine with simplicity, a one-time expenditure of $20-$30 can set you up with several bags that can last for decades. Even if you desire a fancier bag, the cost certainly shouldn't leave you struggling to pay your bills. In the long run, you may even save money as some grocery stores reward customers who bring their own shopping bags with a small discount (usually five cents per bag).

Compostable Produce Bags Can Contaminate Recyclables

man sitting on a bench with groceries


Another drawback of compostable produce bags is that many people do not dispose of them properly. These bags often end up in landfills or enter the recycling system. When compostable packaging breaks down in a landfill, it adds to methane produced by the other organic material. When these bags enter the recycling system, the consequences are even worse, as they can contaminate a whole batch of recyclable material.

Introducing compostable materials into people's everyday lives will only help so much. Consumers also need to be educated about these products. Proper disposal of compostable produce bags is an essential step in the process of making these products a truly better alternative.

The World Is Changing: We Have to Adapt

kermit the frog with grocery bags


Compostable produce bags are just one of several innovations focused on sustainability that we have seen grow in popularity over the past several years. The danger posed by climate change has become more pronounced as we continue to see more and more of the effects on our planet each year. People around the world are finally taking notice of the warnings that environmentalists have been making for decades.

Unfortunately, since it took so long for most people to acknowledge these warnings, we have gotten ourselves into a very dangerous position. Even now, many still ignore these issues. While among those who have begun to pay attention, many behaviors persist that are counter to sustainability. 

We need to all look at our lives and assess the ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint. We need to look at the areas in which we can improve and also at all of the different options within those areas. Choosing a compostable bag at the grocery store is certainly better than using a plastic one. However, buying a reusable canvas tote and bringing it with you each time you shop is the best option.

Compostable Produce Bags Are a Good Starting Point

holding earth's future in our hands


Compostable bags are a move in the right direction, and stores that have swapped out their plastic bags for these more eco-friendly alternatives should be commended. However, they are just a small step and one that, like so many of the products we use today, will hopefully soon be obsolete. 

Compostable produce bags are a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Our real focus needs to be eliminating single-use bags altogether. For centuries reusable bags and baskets were the standards, and single-use options were nonexistent. While innovation often leads to progress, there are certainly instances where humanity has taken a misstep.

We once functioned without single-use bags, and we can do it again. To prepare for the future, we must sometimes look to the past. We need to get back to basics and make forward-thinking choices, rather than focusing on what is the most convenient option for the moment. Our planet and children will appreciate the small sacrifices we make to get the world back on track.