Are you susceptible to the Russian doll effect with your food scraps? Matryoshka dolls, also known as Russian Nesting Dolls are a well-known image: a set of wooden dolls, of steadily decreasing size, nested one within the other. We at NYC Compost Project Hosted by Big Reuse have noticed another nesting trend: plastic bags within plastic bags within plastic bags… Small, oft-forgotten plastic bags of food scraps stored inside of larger plastic bags of food scraps are dropped into toters by accident. Many a person has had to face the same dilemma: dive into the container to retrieve the slimy, stinky bag? or leave it to contaminate the compost? On top of it all, none of the plastic bags used to transport your food scraps from home to the drop off can be recycled! Fortunately, there are a few plastic bag alternatives that will not only help your efforts to save the environment but will also simplify your food scrap drop off experience.
Plastic bags are, of course, a convenient option for storing food scraps prior to dropping them off. After all they are free with every purchase you make at a store, meaning they are readily available and save you money. In fact, they’re so abundant, many people have junk drawers full of them. They can’t be recycled through the municipal curbside program either. So it only makes sense that many people try to make practical use of them before sending them straight to the landfill. Though you cannot recycle plastic bags through the Department of Sanitation, there are several stores throughout New York City that are required by law to accept and recycle them. Here is an easy store locater to find out where. Despite this, NYC Compost Project Hosted by Big Reuse does not have the capacity to clean and recycle bags on your behalf, so all plastic bags received at the drop offs are sent to landfill.
Recycling aside, plastic bags create another set of issues, creating more work for you whenever you drop off. First, if you’re like everyone else, you tie your bags shut so nothing spills out in transit. This means you must take time to unknot or—if the knot is too tight—rip open your bags whenever you drop off. Second, if you practice the Russian doll effect, you’re also unknotting or ripping open bags that are covered in the residue of the food scraps they were nesting in. We don’t always have wipes or hand sanitizer to neutralize any potential pathogens that might now be on your hands, and not everyone has a chance to wash their hands in clean water prior to running off to the their next errand. Finally, while only a minor inconvenience, once done depositing food scraps into the toters, you have to take a moment to dispose of empty plastic bags in the trash.
There are three options to help you avoid the tedium of using plastic bags while also lowering your overall environmental impacts: paper bags, compostable bags, and reusable containers—each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Paper bags, for instance, can be placed straight into the toter, though we ask that you do rip them open first to help speed the process of decomposition. Like plastic bags, they’re pretty easy to store in the freezer. Unfortunately, they are not as sturdy as plastic bags, and are prone to leak or break if they contain a lot of wet materials. Additionally, if the bag is not already food-soiled, meaning it is contaminated by food residue, it is always preferable to recycle instead.
Compostable bags are the next best thing. Like paper bags, they can be placed directly into the toter and are easily stored in the freezer. They also come in a variety of sizes. Also like paper bags, many brands of compostable bags are not as sturdy as plastic and may break open, though they are certainly a stronger option than paper. Their biggest disadvantage however is that not all sites can process them, so always ask at your food scrap drop off before purchasing. While not all stores carry compostable bags, the Department of Sanitation has put together a comprehensive map of local stores that do. They can additionally be purchased online.
Finally, you could always consider dropping off food scraps with a reusable container such as old tupperware, buckets, or any number of countertop compost bins. This is the most eco-friendly and cost-effective option because you are producing no additional waste and do not have to buy new materials. Containers are sturdier than plastic bags and don’t leak, and you can just dump and go. The biggest disadvantages however, are that you must carry the container with you after dropping off and it may need to be washed periodically. Additionally, depending on the container you choose to utilize, food scraps may stink between drop-offs, though this is easily resolved by adding a carbon source such as paper or sawdust to the bin periodically.
Overall, while each of the three plastic bag alternatives offer their own advantages and disadvantages, all three do a fantastic job of giving you a cleaner, quicker drop-off while cutting back on the waste you send the landfill. Even if you so happen to nest paper or compostable bags, these are compostable and will not contaminate the compost pile. Yet if plastic bags still sound like the best option, please avoid practicing the Russian doll effect. Let’s keep this fun nesting surprise to dolls.