Are biodegradable products bad for the environment?
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Are biodegradable products bad for the environment?

An interesting link here, as usual, from JM Heinrichs, explains that biodegradability may not be the environmental panacea we have been told about for years:

Research from North Carolina State University shows that so-called biodegradable products are likely doing more harm than good in landfills, because they are releasing a powerful greenhouse gas as they break down.

“Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane,” says Dr. Morton Barlaz, co-author of a paper describing the research and professor and head of NC State’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. “Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere.”

And 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. EPA estimates that another 34 percent of landfills capture methane and burn it off on-site, while 31 percent allow the methane to escape.

Indeed, it seems that decomposing organic material is a very significant potential source of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, as explained here:

As Australia grapples with its response to climate change, one disturbing fact has been ignored…Every tonne of degradable waste dumped in our nation’s landfill sites today will still be a greenhouse gas liability in 2050. ..Put simply, if action is not taken to stop the greenhouse legacy of landfill, up to 85 per cent of Australia’s carbon budget in 2050 will be accounted for by waste.

Maybe, if we are truly worried about carbon dioxide emissions we should all be returning to good old fashioned plastic.

But now here’s a complicating factor:

Here’s the good news: Plastic may break down in the ocean in as little as a year, not 500 to 1,000 years as scientists previously thought.

If this is true, this might explain why reports of a Texas-sized patch of plastic rubbish in the Pacific have turned out to be wrong.

And, of course, even non-biodegradable plastics will break down eventually, but according to this list, at least, it takes many years for most things. Ironically enough, it seems that if we want plastics to break down, the ocean might be the best place for it.

However if you want a container not to break down and release stuff into the atmosphere, you will be using glass – but then someone, somewhere will need to create more greenhouse gases making more of the stuff.

This is not to mention that great pastime of true greens, composting. If carbon dioxide is not being produced by your compost, then you are not doing it right.

Readers can make their own conclusions about whether biodegradability is desirable, but having reviewed all of the available evidence, my considered opinion is that on the balance of probabilities, I am inclined not to give a rat’s.