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Petroleum Products Preferable to Biodegradable Plastics? Say It Isn't So

6/7/2011 1:13:07 PM

Tags: biodegradable plastic, biodegradable plastic and methane production, biodegradable plastic in landfills, compostable bags, is biodegradable plastic green, compostable plastic, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailPetroleum 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.

 biodegradable plastic 

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6/8/2011 9:46:04 AM
I'm actually one of the authors of this study. I appreciate your thoughtful post on it. We'd be the first to say that our work does not definitively answer whether conventional fossil based plastics are preferable to biodegradable plastics. One would need to look at the entire life-cycle of the product in question to make that judgement. One would also need to include other environmental concerns (e.g., resource conservation, threats to biodiversity, etc). The intent of this work was to look at the end of life phase of such products, because it has typically been neglected in previous work. Environmental protection is complicated and we need to analyze problems systemically to avoid negative unintended consequences. I've actually written a fairly in-depth review of the research on my blog for those who are interested (

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