Ziploc evolveThis is a story about bags, but it's not the same old "paper vs. plastic." To understand the twists and turns here, a few words about the electric grid are necessary. The electricity from wind farms and solar "groves" is usually uploaded to the grid, where it joins the vast sea of other electrons generated conventionally, from natural gas and coal plants.

Wind turbines, ziploc evolveBecause of that, companies that buy "green energy" to lower their carbon footprint (or simply because they want some good public relations) pay a monthly fee to a power broker. That supplier buys (or produces on its own) renewably-generated electricity that it feeds into the grid. For companies, what they're buying is renewable energy certificates, or RECs, which can be traded and applied toward voluntary environmental goals. It's an admirable action for companies to take, but there's no direct connection to the actual manufacturing operations.That's why I take notice when a company like S.C. Johnson & Son says that its "Evolve" Ziploc brand sandwich and storage bags are "made with wind energy." It's fine with me if they want to say they're "better for the environment" or "made with 25% less plastic," but such a bald-faced wind energy claim bears investigating.

Nonetheless, the company's marketing was affirmed last month by the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. NAD said that its investigation revealed that S.C. Johnson had purchased "significant amounts of wind energy" from Spartan Renewable Energy. This is what is called an "offset," which means it's similar to you paying a company to plant trees to make up for your carbon-heavy plane trip. According to a detailed analysis provided by NAD, that energy "is inserted into the grid that services the Bay City plant, where the [Evolve] product is manufactured."

ziploc evolveThat's good to know, but most utilities mix their own generated power with supplemental imported energy from all over the region. The specific energy coming into a manufacturing plant is notoriously difficult to pinpoint. Does the company own its own wind turbines? That would be the only way to ensure that its bags are "made with wind energy."

In 2008, Johnson said it bought 31,500 megawatt hours of wind, which would account for 50% of its energy use in 2009. That's laudable, but it doesn't say anything definitive about the actual electricity producing the Evolve bags.

Follow the asterisk on the bag packaging and you get a message saying that the Evolve bags are "made with a combination of renewable energy and energy from traditional sources." The problem is that, given the fluid reality of the grid, it's hard to validate even general claims like that. And this Ziploc site goes further and claims that the bags are "manufactured using approximately 50% renewable wind energy." Wow, that's very specific, and it implies that the actual electrons the company bought went into making the product.

Linda Bean, director of communications for NAD, told me its inquiries are part of a voluntary process, but if companies don't comply with its decisions the matter is referred to the Federal Trade Commission or another suitable agency. I asked her if she felt the company's claim was justified, and she said she didn't have an opinion.

I next queried the American Wind Energy Association, which doesn't have a problem with the Evolve claim, though its answer is a matter of interpretation. "The green power marketplace relies on the concept of the 'contract path,' as different from the physical path that the actual electrons take. If a company has a contract in place that supports a wind power project, we would certainly support that company saying that it used wind power in the making of its product." They wanted me to imagine the power pool as a pool of mostly polluted water. The clean water flowing into it makes it cleaner.

What they're saying is that I'm being overly technical, and I understand that argument. Maybe I am, but technically, that bag was probably not physically "made with wind power."

Christopher Beard of S.C. Johnson says he's pleased that NAD ruled in favor of its claim on wind energy. He affirms that the company offsets 50% of its electricity use in manufacturing Ziploc bags with wind, though that can drop down to 45% due to weather conditions. "We do understand that the NAD offered a few suggestions on our communications of the claim, and we are evaluating how we might incorporate those suggestions," he said.

I'll be watching what it says on Evolve packaging. And the next time I'm in the supermarket, I probably will buy Ziploc Evolve bags, because I want to support a process that uses 25% less plastic (36% less plastic in the quart size, 32% less in the gallon). I try to use paper bags whenever possible, but Ziplocs are kind of indispensable for certain uses.

My colleague and fellow Green Police writer Sally Deneen suggested I mention that there are also alternatives to plastic bags out there. She keeps wax paper and old glass jars (from mayonnaise or peanut butter) around for "greener storage." Good idea, Sally. I do that, too.

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