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Study questions the eco-friendliness of biodegradable products

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May 31, 2011

A recent study suggests that the methane gas generated by biodegrading alternatives to tra...

A recent study suggests that the methane gas generated by biodegrading alternatives to traditional plastic may be more harmful than plastic waste itself

As tons of plastic items continue to take up space in landfills, and the floating Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow, environmentally-conscious consumers are understandably becoming more interested in biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastic. Whether it's because they share these concerns, or are just trying to cash in on an "eco-fad," many companies have responded by producing biodegradable versions of formerly near-eternal plastic products. While biodegradable products are designed to reduce the amount of trash clogging up our waterways and spoiling our parks, at least one scientist believes they may ultimately be doing more harm than good.

According to Dr. Morton Barlaz, head of North Carolina State University's Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, the problem is methane gas.

"Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane," he stated. "Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere."

Some landfill sites capture methane produced by decomposing garbage, and store it for energy use. While this would seem to add even more value to biodegradable products, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that only an estimated 35 percent of U.S. landfills actually do this. The agency estimates that another 34 percent capture the gas and burn it, with 31 percent simply allowing it to rise into the atmosphere.

Barlaz believes that the Federal Trade Commission's requirement for supposedly "biodegradable" products to biodegrade quickly is only making the problem worse. In the U.S., landfills that do collect methane aren't required to install gas collection systems for at least two years after garbage has been buried. Within that amount of time, he worries, fast-biodegrading materials could have already released most of their methane.

"If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills, we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly," he said.

Clouding the issue is the fact that, to some extent, it pits the environmental concerns of plastic waste and climate change against one another. For those who don't think that man-made greenhouse gases pose a serious threat to the environment, the methane-producing biodegradable garbage would likely seem to be the lesser of two evils. In any case, it's probably safe to say that no one should view biodegradable products as an excuse to not reduce, reuse or recycle.

Dr. Barlaz's paper "Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model" was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The research was supported by Procter & Gamble and the Environmental Research and Education Foundation.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
7 Comments

So add this to the latest liberal complaints about solar stations taking up too much space in the desert and windmills harming the view at Martha's Vineyard. And now, we can't use biodegradable products.

In Lefty utopia there lies a vast tent city where we poop in buckets and eat organically harvested insects. And await the protest marches from People for the Ethical Treatment of Fried Grasshoppers.

One can only dream of such a promised land, sadly.

Todd Dunning
31st May, 2011 @ 11:09 pm PDT

I really think that this is approaching the problem from the wrong angle. Biodegradable products should not be disposed of in landfill.

Instead of sending organic waste to landfill, we should be composting this valuable resource.

Compostable bioplastics are designed to break down at the same rate as cellulose in a compost environment, by retarding the time it takes to break down will result in the products not being compostable.

BioPak
31st May, 2011 @ 11:53 pm PDT

"A recent study suggests". The word "suggests" is little more than an opinion or a guess. I would expect better science from a publication than this. What happened to the day when you actually had to prove a theory before reporting on it. Once people start to realize the cash value of biomass and waste streams are improved we will have a viable solution for our daily waste problem. Programs such as "Zero Waste Zones" and Elemental Impact are addressing such problems.

steven.prindle
1st June, 2011 @ 07:59 am PDT

BioPak has the right idea. Imagine the "bang for the buck" if there were investment in composting facilities specifically designed to produce, capture and burn this methane gas for power generation. It would be a triple win or more. How do we get such a thing started?

Ingrid Scott
1st June, 2011 @ 08:11 am PDT

Most biodegradable plastics will produce CO2 whether buried or composted. Smart recycling and a tax on stupid plastic use (e.g. plastic water bottles) seems like a better option.

Actually, in Lefty Utopia they live in mud huts with grass roofs - tents would require fabric, which would have to be manufactured (unless the tents are felted-wool like Mongolian nomads use).

bret-h
1st June, 2011 @ 08:36 am PDT

For 50 years we have known the best thing to do with our trash is to burn it efficiently and at high temperatures. the garbage is then reduced to ash which can be used as land fill, we would produce a good deal of energy and we wouldn't have to worry about all the many issues with long term garbage storage. Sadly when you tell a liberal you want to burn some trash they freak out.

Michael Mantion
1st June, 2011 @ 10:46 am PDT

This leftist liberal doesn't think that garbage incineration is a problem as long as the input streams are monitored properly as to not produce toxic by products especially with regards to Dioxin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incineration#Dioxin_and_furans

On the other hand my bleeding heart goes out to the recycling regime in Europe's most industrialized country: http://earth911.com/news/2009/07/13/trash-planet-germany/

Somehow I doubt all these Germans will stand in line to join the mud hut / tent city insect eater colony (not that there's anything wrong with it if you are into this kind of sh** - after all being a liberal lefty means I tolerate alternative lifestyles as long as I'm not bothered by it :)

I understand that straw men are perfectly bio-degradable but Todd D., Michael M. and bret-h that doesn't mean that you all have to pile on in this threat creating one "liberal", "left" straw man argument after another.

quax
1st June, 2011 @ 10:35 pm PDT
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