Planet Talk – Biodegradable Does Not Mean Eco-Friendly
Hey Roll Dogs – It's Earth Month! And like many of you, we are rolling up our sleeves, getting our hands in the dirt and promoting the three R's that will steer our world for a greener future; you guessed it, reduce, reuse and recycle. In this post we discuss the trash that cannot be recycled or reused which often ends up in landfills -- biodegradable materials.
A few days ago, Johnny and I were listening to NPR's 1A show Reduce, Reuse, Rethink: Remaking Recycling. The show was hosted by Joshua Johnson and had guests Reid Lifset, research scholar and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology; Monica Wilson, policy and research coordinator for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America. Please give a listen when you have a moment. What we learned from the podcast that led to days of our own research is that biodegradable products are likely doing more harm than good in landfills. How? By releasing a powerful greenhouse gas as they break down.
Personally, we have purchased biodegradable plates, cups, poop bags, toothbrushes made from bambus and baumwolle – all in attempt to decrease our impact on the environment. But new research shows biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane – a valuable energy source when captured, but when released into our air, one pound of methane traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than a pound of carbon dioxide. Are you just as stunned as we were? There's more.
This problem may be exacerbated by the rate at which these human-made biodegradable materials break down. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines call for products marked as "biodegradable" to decompose within "a reasonably short period of time" after disposal. But such rapid degradation may actually be environmentally harmful, because federal regulations do not require landfills that collect methane to install gas collection systems for at least two years after the waste is buried. If materials break down and release methane quickly, much of that methane will likely be emitted before the collection technology is installed. This means less potential fuel for energy use, and more greenhouse gas emissions.
As a result, researchers find that a slower rate of biodegradation is actually more environmentally friendly, because the bulk of the methane production will occur after the methane collection system is in place.
In an article published by ScienceDaily, Dr. Morton Barlaz, professor and head of North Carolina State University's Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering stated, "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 -- in contrast to FTC guidance."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only about 35 percent of municipal solid waste goes to landfills that capture methane for energy use. EPA estimates that another 34 percent of landfills capture methane and burn it off on-site, while 31 percent allow the methane to escape.
Recycle an old bottle by filling it with bird seed and poking holes in the bottom.
Reduce waste and learn to love what you have! After all, memories are the best thing we hold onto. Right?? Reuse products for other uses and keep them away from our landfills.
Avoid wasting pamphlets and flyers by unsubscribing from junk mailing lists (the snail mail kind.) Here is a great article on how to get out of all the mail we never read, www.ecocycle.org/junkmail