Biodegradable products are often worse for the planet
Maybe choose a plastic cup, not a cardboard one
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. ®
An even better idea
Make the packaging so delicious that the user cannot help but gobble it up rather than casting it into the garbage.
Sounds hard doesn't it? But many would argue McDonalds have already perfected containers with more flavour and nutrition than their contents.
The key part for me is..
"..biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly WHEN DISPOSED IN LANDFILLS."
Well then let's not dispose of them in landfills and stop this ridiculous idea that persisting with what we've got already is the best way? If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got. And we haven't got it that good right now.
El Reg, you rock, but please stop with the endless eco-bashing.
My cunning plan...
...is to take my travel mug into the coffee shop each morning and have them use that for my Java. When done, I rinse it out and it is ready to go again.
Regular people, being the lazy so and so's they are, would rather walk in each morning empty handed, get a paper or plastic cup then moan about its impact on the environment and not actually doing anything about the issue.
Last week I said that we should not go to another planet until we sorted ourselves out here and got lambasted by people saying we would never have a Utopia here. I never called for a Utopia. Just limited responsibility at the individual level to stop people from piddling in the water supply as it were. Responsible people are not chucking fast food containers out their car windows when done eating are they, yet take a look at the roadside on your drive home tonight.
Quick survey: Each Up thumb is someone who uses a travel mug and avoids the problem. Each Down thumb is an irresponsible sod who has a paper or Styrofoam cup on their desk and bemoans the fact the world is falling apart because of it.
You know who you are.