Now You See It, Now You Don't: Biodegradable Plastic Grocery Bags to Combat Litter Problem

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Consider the lowly plastic grocery bag. We love them when we need a convenient way to carry purchases home from the supermarket. We hate them when we see them caught in trees and fences, tattered litter along roadways and in waterways. It is a situation for which we'd all lik a solution. Hilex Poly Company has a solution designed to make the problem disappear: the HED Bag, a plastic grocery bag that degrades into harmless material in as little as eight weeks when littered and can be recycled into new bags.

Plastic grocery bags are a convenient way to tote purchases home from the store. Consumers have dreamed up a million uses for old bags, from trashcan liners to pet waste disposal bags. Plastic grocery bags also can be recycled into new bags. So why all the fuss about something so innocuous and pervasive? As much as four percent of the plastic bags used globally each year end up as litter, a situation everyone agrees is unacceptable.

Including Hilex Poly Company, the world's largest producer of plastic grocery bags. And it is why the South Carolina-based company has made combating littered bags a top priority for 2008, introducing a new plastic grocery bag that, when littered, will biodegrade into harmless elements in as little as eight weeks.

Hilex Poly CEO and President David Pastrich refers to the HED bag as "the incredible disappearing bag," but credits advanced materials science for the transformation of an environmental eyesore into a smart, eco-friendly solution that allows consumers to enjoy the convenience of plastic grocery bags and protect the environment.

"What we have done is taken traditional plastic grocery bags made from high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, color concentrate and calcium, and included an environmentally friendly additive that causes the bags to rapidly decompose when exposed to oxygen, heat, sunlight, and stress. If all four conditions are present at the same time -- say for example, an HED bag is stuck in a tree or caught on a fence and is buffeted by the wind during the summer -- it can biodegrade in as few as eight weeks. The other good news is that the plastic breaks down into harmless elements: water, carbon dioxide and the organic waste of microbe cells," Pastrich explains. "Compared to traditional plastic grocery bags which don't degrade at all
and you can see that the HED plastic grocery bag is a truly unique, viable solution for addressing littered bags," he adds.

Hilex Poly's HED bags are also recyclable, and if retailers participate in the company's Bag-2-Bag® recycling program, the largest of its kind in the world, they can be turned into new plastic
grocery bags, which Pastrich says, is the ideal solution.

"We all have a vested interest in protecting the environment and preserving scarce resources like the plastic used in grocery bags. If everyone supported plastic bag recycling -- retailers, consumers and bag makers -- there wouldn't be an issue. Unfortunately, littered bags are an issue and we are doing our best to make that issue go away, literally, with the HED bag," Pastrich says.

The process defined So just what makes the HED bags biodegrade? It's a simple, two-stage process. First, there is a chemical reaction where oxygen attacks the carbon chains in the plastic, breaking long chains
down into smaller chains, which take on oxygen. The plastic is eventually transformed into organic functional groups -- carboxylic acids, alcohols -- that attract water. The smaller carbon
chains and the presence of oxygen and water create the conditions for the second stage of the process: microbial digestion.

If microorganisms are present -- as they are in landfills and in the environment at large -- these small fragments will be treated as food. From here, the fragments further decompose into simple elements: water, carbon dioxide and biomass (organic waste of microbe cells), all of which naturally occur in the environment. There are no heavy metals or methane gas emissions.

As long as oxygen is present, HED bags will biodegrade, though the process is longer in colder temperatures. If HED bags are placed in a landfill rather than recycled, they will biodegrade in approximately 400 days in an aerobic (one where oxygen is present) landfill. If the landfill is anaerobic (no oxygen) the bag will be entombed and will not degrade -- the same as other items such as newspapers, leftover food and paper grocery bags.

A meaningful solution
Supermarkets and other retailers that switch from traditional plastic bags to HED bags won't see any difference in performance. However, the bags do have a limited shelf life before they start to biodegrade. HED bags stored in a sealed carton have a shelf life of two years. HED bags on a rack in a sunny checkout stand will begin to degrade in about eight weeks. Most retailers will use the bags long before performance is compromised.

HED bags cost slightly more than traditional plastic grocery bags, but the benefits are worth it, says Pastrich. "None of us like to see plastic bags littering roadsides or floating in waterways. It
would be nice if we could flip a switch and make everyone recycle his or her used bags. Since changing behaviors is difficult, the next best thing is biodegradable plastic bags."

Pastrich doesn't deny that Hilex Poly has a vested interest in making sure plastic grocery bags remain in America's stores. "Our future depends on retailers continuing to provide shoppers with plastic bags, but it's also our responsibility to protect the environment for future generations. With solutions like biodegradable, recyclable HED bags and our Bag-2-Bag recycling program, Hilex Poly has clearly demonstrated we want to be a solution."

About Hilex Poly Company, LLC
Headquartered in Hartsville, S.C., Hilex Poly Company, LLC, is the leading provider of innovative bagging and film solutions that use products, dispensing systems, and in-store and out-of-store support services to meet the channel-specific needs of retailers and their customers. The Company owns and operates the largest plastic bag recycling center in the world and the only center that turns used plastic bags into new bags. Hilex Poly employs 1,600 people at its 11 North American plants.


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Melanie Lux
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