Biodegradable is certainly a hot eco-buzzword, but is it really all that eco-friendly? Is is so NOT eco-friendly that it borders on greenwashing when used incorrectly? Maybe.
We see biodegradable goods all over the place. Some examples…
- Biodegradable diapers
- Biodegradable dishes made with potato, corn (PLA) or sugar (bagasse)
- Biodegradable chip bags
- Biodegradable bags
- Biodegradable toys
- Biodegradable body care
The list goes on and on.
My three major issues with so called biodegradable items.
- Biodegradable products cost more for consumers – I’m assuming because they’re “eco-friendly.” For example, biodegradable diapers or biodegradable picnic ware will cost you more than disposable diapers and disposable picnic ware.
- Some companies making biodegradable products use the term “Biodegradable” as if it’s 100% eco-friendly, thus implying that their company or product is totally on board the green train.
- Biodegradable is a questionable, at best alternative to disposables in most areas thus making biodegradable neither eco-friendly or worth the price which brings us right back to the first two issues I have above. It feels like greenwashing to me in many cases.
Here’s how some companies sell the term biodegradable to consumers… “Buying a product that’s biodegradable reduces the amount of trash in the landfill because one, you can compost said product in your own backyard and two even if you don’t, you can feel good about tossing it in the landfill since it will simply melt (biodegrade) away in just days/months.”
AND all the above actually sounds pretty warm and fuzzy if you want to live greener. So you pay extra for the biodegradable diapers and plates and so on but in reality, biodegradable is much more tricky then most people think.
What biodegradable really means…
First of all biodegradable is not the same as compostable. Of course most organic home gardeners know that there are products that easily degrade or compost in a basic compost pile like leftover veggies, newspaper, leaves, egg shells and so on. Basically organic matter that easily breaks down.
A product that is truly biodegradable is simply a product that is capable of decomposing at some point BUT needs help from biological agents such as bacteria to do so. If a product is biodegradable and it’s not exposed to said helpful agents it may not decompose.
However, popular knowledge suggests that many people assume biodegradable means that you can toss the product and not have to worry about it because it’ll break down happily in a landfill – but as noted above that’s far from true. Even the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that NOTHING biodegrades in a landfill because nothing is supposed to. Furthermore the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that “Uncontrolled biodegradation in a landfill can cause ground water pollution, methane gas emissions and unstable sub-soil conditions.” So, if you’re tossing that biodegradable plate you may be causing a lot of harm without meaning to.
Why biodegradable products won’t break down in a landfill…
According to Earth 911, during a 2001 study from the University of Arizona, researchers, “Excavated 21 landfills across North America and reported finding hundreds of undecomposed hot dogs, corn starch and lettuce dating back to the 1960s. They also found 2,425 newspapers – still readable – that were essentially used to date the food.” If organic matter isn’t even decomposing in a landfill, it’s very unlikely that a “biodegradable plate” will decompose.
Landfills aren’t made to decompose items. They’re made to hold items. Slate notes, “For sanitary reasons, modern landfills are lined on the bottom with clay and plastic to keep waste from escaping into the soil and are covered daily with a layer of earth to reduce odor. The landfill, then, acts like a trash tomb—the garbage within receives little air, water, or sunlight. This means that even readily degradable waste objects, including paper and food scraps, are more likely to mummify than decompose.”
Where will biodegradable items break down?
When you buy, use and finish with a biodegradable item you have to handle its disposable in a special way. You need to take the item to a commercial composting facility that has both the heat and means to decompose the product successfully.
The problem with this is that there are almost no commercial composting facilities available to consumers.
According to an excellent 2006 Smithsonian article advocates of corn made plastic, (PLA) note that it’s 100% biodegradable, and that’s true but the piece also notes that PLA will only decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment.”And those are biodegradability standards developed in part by Steven Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute. A controlled composting environment is NOT your backyard bin, pit or tumbling barrel. It’s a large facility where compost reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days.
NatureWorks, the largest bio-plastic plant in the world also notes that bio-plastics must be composted in commercial facilities not in your home compost pile. NatureWorks also states that biopolymer is totally recyclable and has the potential to be recycled “Once there is a sufficient volume of product in the market and the infrastructure is in place to make recycling economically feasible.”
Is there a commercial composting plant near you?
Most likely there is not a commercial composting plant near you. Back in 2006, NatureWorks identified only 113 facilities nationwide available to accept bio-plastic and deal with it in an eco-friendly manner. In fact, even in hyper green Portland, Oregon, where I live, PLA is causing problems. Don’t assume you can recycle either. Biodegradable items simply tossed in with normal recycling is not consider efficient and may even screw up the entire recycling stream. Visit Earth 911 to see if there is a commercial composting plant near you.
Should you skip biodegradable plastics and other items said to be biodegradable?
With all the above in mind, biodegradable goods sound pretty lame. However, there are a couple of major benefits. Unlike regular plastic, bio-plastics aren’t made from non-renewable oil. Biodegradable products are made from plants and also result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions due to their less taxing manufacturing process.
In my opinion…
If a company is marketing a biodegradable product as easily biodegradable in your home compost it’s a greenwashing tactic with no evidence to back it up. The actual scientific evidence we have right now says no, you cannot sufficiently compost these products in your yard and worse if you send them to a landfill they’ll sit and sit, just like other stuff. It’s good that companies are making products that consume less oil, but by telling consumers that their products simply melt away back to the earth they’re not being honest – they’re just using the term biodegradable to seem more eco-friendly than they actually are AND charging you more money for products in the process.
With this in mind, I wouldn’t buy stuff from companies who tell you that these products are easily composted at home. They’re not.
In the matter of a company like NatureWorks or Nature’s Bottles – companies who are honest from the start, i.e. they tell you you need a commercial facility, then I feel better about buying from them. However, buying these products obviously don’t solve your eco-issues. Reusable products are still cream of the crop when it comes to green living. For example, take a picnic. You could use reusable dishes (greenest) OR you’ll have to choose recycled paper or bio-plastic dishes. The paper dishes can be recycled and/or tossed in a compost pile. The bio-plastic dishes need to be collected and taken to a commercial plant – if you have one in your area. So, really, right now until we get better facilities 100% recycled paper picnic products might be the greener option.
To sum up:
Take it on a case by case basis. Are you buying a biodegradable toy that you’ll use up so it won’t require composting at all? That’s fine. Are you going to have a big picnic and not recycle anything anyway? If so bio-plastics are a good choice over traditional plastic plates which are made with oil. Are you buying biodegradable diapers with the intention that they’ll sit for less time in a landfill? Skip it – unless your intention is to save oil (also a good goal) disposable diapers are the same but cost less.
Case by case AND stick to honest not greenwashing companies.
What do you think of biodegradable products?