Feeds

Biodegradable products are often worse for the planet

Maybe choose a plastic cup, not a cardboard one

Boost IT visibility and business value

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. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Just TWO climate committee MPs contradict IPCC: The two with SCIENCE degrees
'Greenhouse effect is real, but as for the rest of it ...'
BEST BATTERY EVER: All lithium, all the time, plus a dash of carbon nano-stuff
We have found the Holy Grail (of batteries) - boffins
Asteroid's DINO KILLING SPREE just bad luck – boffins
Sauricide WASN'T inevitable, reckon scientists
Flamewars in SPAAACE: cooler fires hint at energy efficiency
Experiment aboard ISS shows we should all chill out for cleaner engines
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Famous 'Dish' radio telescope to be emptied in budget crisis: CSIRO
Radio astronomy suffering to protect Square Kilometre Array
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.