True Quality CleaningStraight talk about caring for fine garments & household textiles from an expert who calls it like it is. In plain English.

Dry cleaner poly bags: fact vs. fiction

Poly film shirts in bagsLast night, the TV industry honored their best at the 62nd Primetime Emmy Award ceremony.

One aspect of this year's event peaked my interest: the event organizers emphasized sustainable practices in every facet of the production. So much so that they even collected and returned to their dry cleaner all the poly bags used to protect the garments of attendees and staff.

Sounds like the event organizers invested some time talking to their dry cleaner.

Big mistake.

I'd bet that the event organizers bought the claim that those poly bags were "recyclable" or "biodegradable." The truth, however, is probably far different.

First of all, it's important to understand that there's a huge difference between conventional poly, biodegradable poly and degradable poly.

Conventional polyPoly film orange tags

Conventional poly is used by the vast majority of cleaners.

Conventional poly cannot be recycled by a recycling facility.

Furthermore, conventional poly does not break down (i.e., biodegrade) in a landfill or breakdown (i.e., degrade) in the environment. That's because conventional poly is composed of petroleum-based materials called resins that are resistant to biodegradation or degradation.
Bottom line: Conventional poly is not recyclable. Conventional poly is not biodegradable. Conventional poly is not degradable. When buried in a landfill, conventional poly may degrade in 100 to 500 years.

Biodegradable poly

Some cleaners claim that their poly is "biodegradable."

Like conventional poly, biodegradable poly cannot be recycled by a recycling facility.

In order to transform conventional poly into biodegradable poly, manufacturers add a special, patented additive to the resin during manufacture - an additive that is a food source for bacteria, fungi and algae.

The problem, however, is that biodegradable poly must be buried in a biologically active environment (such as a landfill) in order to degrade. Let's put this another way: biodegradable poly will NEVER degrade UNLESS it's buried in a biologically active environment (such as a landfill).

And even if the biodegradable poly is buried in a biologically active environment, biodegradation may take far longer than the advertised 5 years. That's because the speed of biodegradation depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The presence of the "right conditions" in a landfill.
     
    Biodegradable poly biodegrades by the enzymatic aPolyfilm landfillction of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi and algae) in the landfill.
        
    But there's an important "if": biodegradable poly will only biodegrade if the poly is in direct contact with these microorganisms and/or other materials that are themselves biodegrading.
      
    To give you a sense of the likelihood that your cleaner's biodegradable poly will actually degrade in a modern sanitary landfill within the advertised 5 years, consider this experiment:
      
    Take two heads of lettuce. Toss one in the back of your refrigerator. Dump the other in the local landfill, compact it down tightly with the other trash, and cover everything with a thick layer of clean fill. In just six weeks, the refrigerated lettuce will begin to rot away. But wait ten years and you'll still be able to recognize the second head of lettuce in the landfill!

    So what's the likelihood that your dry cleaner's biodegradable poly will actually biodegrade in less than the advertised 5 years?
      
    Probably slim to none.
     
  • The type of landfill in which it's buried.

     
    Unless the biodegradable poly ends up in a special bioconversion facility (an unlikely prospect), it's destined to be entombed in a modern sanitary landfill - an environment that's intentionally designed to retard biodegradation!
      
    You see, in order to minimize the formation of toxic gases and leachate, modern sanitary landfills are operated so that little, if any, of the trash actually degrades. No sunlight, and hardly any moisture or oxygen penetrates down through the layers of garbage. As a result, the chemical and biological processes that break down materials are slowed to a crawl. The trash in a landfill retains its original weight, volume and form essentially for the entire active life of the facility - a period that can reach 100 years.
     
  • The amount of the special additive in the biodegradable poly.
      
    In order to render this poly biodegradable, manufacturers add a special, patented additive to the poly during manufacture. The more additive in the poly, the faster the biodegradation, and vice versa.
      
    Here's the problem: it's possible to add a minuscule amount of this special additive to the poly and still - technically - call the poly biodegradable. Even if the biodegradation time frame is now measured in decades.

Here's the summary on biodegradable poly:

With biodegradable poly, biodegradation depends on the poly being buried in a biologically active environment (such as a landfill), depends on direct contact with microorganisms and/or other materials that are themselves biodegrading in the landfill, produces methane gas, and can take up to 5 years to biodegrade. Maybe.

Degradable polyRave conveyor

Degradable poly is used by a few cleaners.

Unlike conventional poly or biodegradable poly, degradable poly can be recycled by a recycling facility.

With degradable poly, degradation depends on light, heat or air, does not require burial in a biologically active environment (such as a landfill), does not depend on direct contact with microorganisms and/or other materials that are themselves biodegrading in the landfill, produces no methane gas, and breaks down in less than 2 years.

At RAVE FabriCARE, we only use degradable poly. Probably the only drycleaner in the metro Phoenix area using degradable poly.

Summary

Those of you who are environmentally conscious, know that you can't take environmental claims at face value. That it's important to do the research and fact check those claims.

Claims made by dry cleaners regarding their poly bags is another example of claims that ought to be carefully examined.

The reality is that "recyclable poly" isn't recyclable and that "biogradable poly" almost never biodegrades. Dry cleaners who make such claims are not necessarily trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They probably just don't know any better.

Back to those poly bags collected at the Emmy Awards and returned to the dry cleaner for "recycling". I'd bet they're now sitting in a dumpster somewhere in Los Angeles.

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