Biodegradable products are often championed as eco-friendly alternatives to plastic goods under the assumption that they safely break down at the end of their lifecycles, causing no permanent damage to the environment. However according to new research by North Carolina State University, biodegradable products may actually be doing more harm than good. The study found that when biodegradable products are thrown into landfills they actually release methane – a powerful greenhouse gas.
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Dr. Morton Barlaz, co-author of the paper “Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model” said, “Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane. Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but it is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere.”
We have discussed the energy potential of methane in the past, but 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. While another 34 percent of landfills capture methane and burn it off on-site, the remaining 31 percent allow it to escape – straight into the atmosphere. “In other words,” Barlaz says, “biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed in landfills.”
Oh, brilliant — so apart from now feeling guilty about all the methane we could have released into the atmosphere, what can we do? Currently the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls for all products marked as “biodegradable” to decompose within “a reasonably short period of time” after disposal. Unfortunately, rapid degradation leads to the release of methane and, as such, is environmentally harmful — and there is no federal regulation for landfills to install gas collection systems for at least two years.
As a result, the researchers believe that a slower rate of bio-degradation could actually be more environmentally friendly, as methane collection systems will then be in place. “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.”