Let’s go shopping!

Here’s what I noticed the last time I looked at the plastic shopping bag from Raley’s:

The bag is “manufactured” by IPS Industries but “made” in Malaysia!

I looked up IPS. They are a privately-held California-based company (Cerritos, LA County) and their homepage says “Intelligent Packaging Solutions.” I suppose that’s where they get their name.

If you go to the Products tab you can see a great variety of trash bags, grocery sacks, can liners, deli sheets, poly mailers, etc. They have plastic, paper, fabric, disposable, compostable, recyclable, reusable, you name it. They can customize your containers and do the art, color, and printing as well.

I’m guessing that for this particular product the plastic comes from Malaysia and it gets turned into a bag at IPS. Turns out that Malaysia is a major supplier of plastics with over a thousand companies involved in making the stuff of which about half goes into packaging. Malaysia and its neighbor Indonesia each sit on over three billion barrels of oil reserves putting them in the top 30 of countries worldwide, ahead of the United Kingdom but below Egypt.

You see the “recycle” logo on a lot of plastics with the polymer code beneath it. In this case HDPE (no. 2 plastic) means High Density Poly-Ethylene. Despite the claims to the contrary it’s not really a recyclable commodity like aluminum or glass. They do collect HDPE and make new stuff with it (that’s what “post-consumer waste” means) but it’s hard to develop a true closed-loop. Plastics have to be sorted, not just by type, but by size (thickness), and they have to be clean. HDPE is typically shredded and then melted and formed into pellets. These pellets are then turned into various products like plastic lumber. HDPE isn’t really recycled so much as re-purposed or “down-cycled.”

The problem is that virgin plastic is usually cheaper than the re-used stuff and it lacks the impurities and irregularities that crop up with post-consumer waste supplies. HDPE is made from ethylene gas which is extracted from petroleum. Half the world’s ethylene goes into producing polyethylene plastics.

This industrially-produced ethylene is the same gas used to ripen fruit. Plants produce ethylene naturally, that’s why storing some fruits in a closed bag will help them ripen. It’s a common practice to harvest fruits before they ripen and then treat them in a warehouse with externally-applied ethylene. This is how bananas get to market. They are picked when mature but still green and then “yellowed” by ethylene before they hit the shelves.

Without packaging we would have a hard time getting fresh, high-quality food. The trade-off of course is the waste and pollution from these packaging products. Single-use plastics are getting a justifiably bad rap these days but the solutions are not simple. The ubiquity of chemicals like HDPE and their amazing versatility means they can’t be replaced easily. Perhaps if things like these shopping bags were stamped with “probably wind up choking a fish or turtle in the ocean” instead of the misleading “recyclable” we might be more aware of the impacts and start to find alternatives!

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