Study: Biodegradable Products Bad for Climate?

Biodegradable products are becoming more and more common these days.  Just when you thought we were heading in the right direction, it turns out the very biodegradable products meant to help the us and planet, may actually be contributing to climate change.

That’s right, those corn based plastic cups, potato based utensils, or bamboo based plates may be doing more harm than good in terms of GHG production, not necessarily during production, but at waste disposal.

The study from the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University, called into question the biodegradability as a desirable attribute for discarded waste. The study states that, “there is increasing interest in the use of biodegradable materials because they are believed to be ‘greener.’ In a landfill, these materials degrade anaerobically to form methane and carbon dioxide.”

Yes, we have biodegradable solid waste that sits in landfills for months, if not a couple years, but not eons.  As implied by the type of waste, it biodegrades.  Sadly, the same biodegradable solid waste produces methane and carbon dioxide, both known to be greenhouse gases.

This news calls into question the efficacy of using biodegradable products.  If there are more emissions in not just the production, but the disposal, of a biodegradable product then the comparable petroleum based products, does that not defeat the purpose of producing biodegradable products in the first place?  Do biodegradable products provide other benefits to justify their existence?

Let’s assume that there are more benefits to biodegradable products than petroleum based products.  How do we deal with the biodegradable products’ GHG contribution?

One solution to avert this problem is to collect landfill produced methane and turn it into fuel.  The problem is not necessarily that methane is produced, but the gases are making their way up to the atmosphere.

Only 69% of landfills in the United States collect landfill gas.  And of that 69% that do collect, only around 75% is collected. That means only half of all landfill methane is collected.  Capturing more methane from landfills could lessen contribution to climate change.

Another solution is to make biodegradable products that take longer to degrade.  The study suggests, “a slower biodegradation rate and a lower extent of biodegradation improve the environmental performance of a material in a landfill.”

What do you think?  Do we need to shift back to petroleum based products?  Of should we continue to increase the use of biodegradable products?  Can we continue to warrant the use of biodegradeable products despite its possible contribution to worsening climate change?

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.