Feeds

Biodegradable products are often worse for the planet

Maybe choose a plastic cup, not a cardboard one

High performance access to file storage

Stateside boffins say that, contrary to popular perception, it would often be better for the planet if people avoided using biodegradable products compliant with the recommended US government guidelines.

This is because biodegradable wastes – for instance cardboard cups, "eco friendly" disposable nappies, various kinds of shopping and rubbish bags etc – often wind up in landfill, where they will degrade and emit methane. Methane is, of course, a vastly more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, so it is seen as important to prevent it getting into the atmosphere.

That's not always an issue, according to environmental engineering professor Dr Morton Barlaz. A lot of US landfills are already set up to capture their methane and either burn it off – so reducing the global-warming impact enormously – or pipe it out for subsequent use as fuel.

Unfortunately, however, landfills can't capture their gases until they are full up and capped off, and this takes time. And US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines call for products marked as "biodegradable" to decompose within "a reasonably short period of time" after disposal. Often a product marked "biodegradable" will decompose into methane in the depths of a landfill before the operator can get a cover over it.

"In other words," Barlaz says, "biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed in landfills."

The answer, according to Barlaz, is to get away from the idea that rapid decomposition is always a good idea – especially on things which won't be recycled much but will probably wind up in landfill, for instance disposable nappies, fast-food packaging etc.

"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."

The UK says it is meeting goals aimed at sending much less waste to landfill, but we still chuck nearly 15 megatonnes of rubbish into the ground each year. If we aren't sure that it is going to be recycled, we too should probably think twice about using biodegradable stuff.

Professor Barlaz' paper, Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model is published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Fancy joining Reg hack on quid-a-day challenge?
Recruiting now for charity starvation diet
Red-faced LOHAN team 'fesses up in blown SPEARS fuse fiasco
Standing in the corner, big pointy 'D' hats
KILLER SPONGES menacing California coastline
Surfers are safe, crustaceans less so
Opportunity selfie: Martian winds have given the spunky ol' rover a spring cleaning
Power levels up 70 per cent as the rover keeps on truckin'
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
Elon Musk's LEAKY THRUSTER gas stalls Space Station supply run
Helium seeps from Falcon 9 first stage, delays new legs for NASA robonaut
Top Secret US payload launched into space successfully
Clandestine NRO spacecraft sets off on its unknown mission
New FEMTO-MOON sighted BIRTHING from Saturn's RING
Icy 'Peggy' looks to be leaving the outer rings
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.