All September, we’re raising awareness of the effects of our pet’s waste on the environment. This week, we’re discussing the different types of dog waste removal out on the market. When it comes to dog waste bags, you generally see three different types of bags: you have your traditional plastic bags, bags claiming to be compostable, and bags claiming to be biodegradable. Each of these bags are quite different and differ on how they can be discarded.
Traditional plastic bags are obviously the worst-case scenario when it comes to environmental effects associated with dog waste. As is commonly known, plastics take a ludicrously long time to break down, whether it is out in the ocean or in a landfill. Technically, plastic bags can be considered biodegradable, since they eventually do break down naturally in the environment, but at such a long time scale that it is practically irrelevant to our efforts to curb our environmental paw prints.
Biodegradable bags are allegedly constructed to decompose quickly in the environment. The term “biodegradable” refers to an item’s ability to be broken down and consumed by biological forces such as fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) defines biodegradable as an item that “will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” The FTC is vague on what a “short period of time” is, though other sections of their Green Guides for the use of environmental marketing claims allude a period of time between four to twelve months. Generally, biodegradable bags are made from plant-based materials such as corn or lignin, types of polymers derived from trees and algae. Some companies claim to make biodegradable plastic bags coated with additives that allegedly accelerate decomposition, though by how much is left unclear. The biggest advantage to true biodegradable bags is that they will indeed return to the earth relatively promptly and not just sit in a landfill for a lifetime. Some, like alcohol-based types are even flushable. Some disadvantages to these biodegradable bags is that depending on the material they are made of, they can be less structurally-sound than their plastic counterparts. Also, some biodegradable bags need specific environments in order to properly decompose, which may lead to the same result as a plastic bag in a landfill. To avoid this, proper care must be taken to ensure the bag is disposed of properly to make sure it doesn’t end up in a landfill.
Compostable materials differ from biodegradable materials only in that they are specifically intended to be reused as fertilizer or soil conditioner. The FTC defines compostable materials as those that “will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (e.g., soil-conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner (i.e., in approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted) in an appropriate composting facility, or in a home compost pile or device”. Compostable bags will eventually break down into humus, which can then be used to supplement soil with additional minerals and nutrients. Like biodegradable bags, it is important to dispose of compostable bags in appropriate ways, such as discarding it in a dog waste-only compost bin or at a composting facility that accepts animal waste. Burying it also works as long as it away from food and water sources.
So, as you can see, going green takes a little more than just buying the right bag. It is important to be aware if your bags truly will decompose in a practical amount of time, which can be tricky with all the marketing buzzwords being misused. Even more important is making sure that whatever bag you use gets disposed of in an appropriate way and place in order to maximize the benefits of switching from plastic. It takes a little work, but it will go a long way in reducing our paw print on the environment!