Papa’s got a brand new bag—and it’s helping him compost. Compostable-bag manufacturers like Biobag, a Norwegian company founded sixteen years ago, are growing explosively as Americans reconsider what to do with their trash. “We were not prepared for such a huge boom,” Mark Williams, director of market development for Biobag USA, says about this year’s 200 percent increase in sales. (Corn-based Biobags retail at about three times the amount of Glad kitchen bags at Amazon.com.) The company experienced supply issues thanks to composting’s newfound popularity, but a new plant in San Leandro, California, started fabricating shopping and produce bags this year. Next up, food-waste and tall kitchen bags.
Nearly one-third of the trash sent to landfills in the US—27 million tons of food waste alone—is compostable. But more and more Americans are learning about the benefits of composting. That growing awareness is driving an emerging segment of the biodegradable products market that presently includes as many as 20 manufacturers, most with nationwide distribution. Biobag in particular also gets a boost from composting programs in Boulder, Colorado; Portland; Seattle; and San Francisco. The latter’s Department of the Environment sent 100,000 rolls of Biobags to residents to jump-start its four-year-old curbside food-scraps collection program. (Today, San Francisco residents help divert nearly 80 percent of the city’s recyclable refuse from landfills.)
Though they aren’t designed to, landfills cause organic matter like food waste to degrade anaerobically, which means they generate more methane than any other human-made source, according to Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute. But if that organic waste is composted, it breaks down aerobically, and the carbon goes back into soil in the form of humus. The compost, when used on a farm, also helps save water, Mojo says.
As an industry sector, compostable bags only started emerging in the early 2000s in the US. That’s when ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, published its standards for the material. The industry is far from robust, Mojo says, barely registering a blip on the radar of companies selling traditional plastic bags. But the future looks bright. “It’s still going gangbusters,” says Biobag’s Williams. “It’s very encouraging that this market is sustaining all these new businesses.”
Story by Dan Fost. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.