That's Not a Bag of Garbage, It's a Bag of Energy!

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energy bag

The Keep America Beautiful people keep figuring out more ways to keep America safe for single-use disposable plastics.

Keep America Beautiful is a non-profit with a mission "to inspire and educate people to take action every day to improve and beautify their community environment." It has been effective at training citizens to pick up litter and to recycle, but somehow it never actually tries to deal with the root cause of waste, which is the production of single-use products and disposable packaging.

We have noted before how this gang essentially invented recycling after dumps were filling up with their detritus. But not everything they make can be recycled; some are composites or what Bill McDonough called "monstrous hybrids" that have different materials stuck together. So now Dow Chemical and KAB have developed a new feel-good alternative to keep the single-use plastic gravy train going: The Hefty EnergyBag.

The Hefty® EnergyBagTM Program addresses several challenges by collecting non-recycled plastic items - like juice pouches, chip bags, meat and cheese bags, cereal and cake box pouches, candy wrappers and plastic utensils - at curbside. These plastics are diverted from landfills and converted into a valuable resource, such as an alternative energy, fuel (diesel or oil) or a chemical feedstock which can be used to make new plastics in a closed-loop system, advancing the circular economy.

What they are actually doing is feeding those orange bags into cement kilns and calling it alternative energy. It wasn't enough that the industry trained us to feel good about picking up their garbage; now they are convincing us that incineration is a virtue, that it is actually part of the circular economy.

Writing in Green Building Advisor and the Conversation, Ana Baptista notes the technical contradictions in this.

Waste incineration deflects attention from more sustainable solutions, such as redesigning products for recyclability or eliminating toxic, hard-to-recycle plastics. Currently only about one-third of municipal solid waste is recycled in the United States. Rates for some types of plastics are even lower.

In fact, back at the KAB, they list the challenges that led them to develop the EnergyBag.

a) Technical Challenges: In order to recycle plastics, each individual polymer needs to be separated. However, various flexible plastic packages are made from several materials such as sealant layers, tie-layers and various barrier layers that decrease the quality of the recyclable materials.
b) Infrastructure Challenges: Currently, flexible plastic packaging is not broadly collected nor able to be sorted at MRFs. Also, many flexibles get entangled during a MRF’s separation process which causes adverse downtime and expenses for operators.

All of these problems could be solved by simplifying the design of packaging, by just setting some rules or guidelines or giving a moment's thoughts to these issues. Instead, we have a huge list of plastics that are simply not recyclable.

Milk cartons

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

An example right out of my fridge is provided by these two milk cartons from the same company. One package opens like milk cartons have since they were invented in 1915. It's tough, really; you have to figure out which side to open. So in the name of convenience, they have added a plastic spout because opening the spout was just too hard. But this makes recycling the container much harder, because the plastic has to be separated from the cardboard; it has become a "monstrous hybrid." Does anyone really need this convenience? Of course not. But they don't even think about it.

Baptista continues:

Dow’s partnership with Keep America Beautiful is particularly problematic because it takes advantage of local municipalities and residents who want to promote zero-waste, climate-friendly policies. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, burning municipal solid waste emits nearly as much carbon per unit of energy as coal, and almost twice as much as natural gas.
the power of waste

© American Chemistry Council

We have written that "the EPA reports that incinerating garbage releases 2,988 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity produced. That compares unfavorably with coal (2,249 pounds/megawatt hour) and natural gas (1,135 pounds/megawatt hour)."

But that is undifferentiated garbage. Here, citizens are actually separating the plastics, which we have also called solid fossil fuels, so it is likely more concentrated. It will likely also emit more of those other things that are products of combustion when you burn plastics, like dioxins, furans, and PAHs.

The KAB has been relentless in its campaign to keep America safe for single use packaging, but the EnergyBag is the most egregious greenwashing yet. For years they fooled us into thinking that separating their garbage was virtuous, instead of designing their products to reduce waste in the first place. Now, when they have a pile of garbage that they actually can't recycle, they are fooling us into thinking that burning it is virtuous, that we have a bag of energy, not a bag of garbage. How stupid do they think we are?