Petroleum products are environmentally preferable to biodegradable ones? This news is hard to take.
“Biodegradable” plastics, often touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastic--which can take decades to decompose--have flooded the marketplace in recent years. The Federal Trade Commission defines biodegradability as the ability to decompose “within a short time” after disposal. But according to a new report, “Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model,” rapid decomposition may be causing more harm than good.
North Carolina State University researchers have found that biodegradable products release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, when they’re dumped in landfills. “Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane,” Dr. Morton Barlaz, co-author of the paper, told Inhabitat. “Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but it is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 31 percent of landfills allow methane to escape. “If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills,” Barlaz says, “we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly – in contrast to FTC guidance.”
Ultimately, the report’s authors state, if emissions for biodegradable material are comparable to or higher than emissions from biodegradable material, “then it is hard to rationalize a suggestion that the biodegradable material is the preferable alternative.”
This study highlights our deep need to address landfill operations and develop better biodegradable alternatives. Whatever the issues with biodegradable plastics, petroleum-based products aren’t the answer.