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Study: Biodegradable Products Bad for Climate?

| Thursday June 2nd, 2011 | 7 Comments

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?


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  • NHA

    I don’t think that we should switch back to petroleum based products. We should complete the cycle. As the article points out, the problem occurs on the back end when biodegradation occurs in the landfill. If we were to upgrade our waste facilities to capture and use the gases that are released not only by biodegradble products but by conventional organic waste, we would be able to highly offset the cost of production and reduce environmental impact.

  • mark

    30% or more of landfill waste is organic…and it should be treated as a resource, and be recycled. divert organics out of the landfill and create nutrient rich topsoils for farmers thus reducing their water needs and reliance on petro chemicals

  • Matt Schnackenberg

    somethings are needed, i feel better putting more greenhouse gases out than having something sit in a landfill for eons. I’d rather landfills shrink, not grow.

  • tamiam

    Thank you for stating the obvious. Not only do few so-called biodegradables get diverted from the garbage stream, but those that do get directed to a compost facility generally fail to compost when sent to a compost facility. This means they get screened out as contaminants and sent to landfill, and all they’ve done is added cost to the process. The degradables that end up as litter or in compost degraded into a bunch of very small pieces. This makes them harder to see which makes folks feel good, but is far riskier to the environment. They get eaten by animals. More surface area means the toxic element is more bio-available.

  • mauvaisoeil

    I think we need to find ways to sequester theses gasses as they are
    released. When they get into the atmosphere, that’s when they are bad.
    Maybe they should bury them in some type of mineral deposit that
    these gasses will attach themselves to, kinda like carbon capture and
    sequestration for coal. I don’t know much about this except that if we
    are putting the gasses in the atmosphere quicker that they are
    sequestered, that’s not good. On the other hand, you have petroleum
    based products. We should just try to use less while someone smart
    figures this out ;)

  • Jenna

    I work at a company where we use biodegradable eating products every day for over a hundred people. Although I feel better about using a potato or corn fork than a plastic one…there has got to be a better solution. I’ll stick with the potato forks for now.

  • Irene

    This article illustrates that landfill management needs to change. There are currently hundreds of substances that end up mixed together, making them very costly to extract. As primary sources of raw materials decline, it will eventually become cost-effective to mine our landfills. Let’s sort the garbage in a way that makes future extraction easier.