Biodegradable Products Cause Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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A recent study released by North Carolina State University reveals that biodegradable products might not be as good for the enviornment as was previously thought.

Dr. Morton Barlaz and James Levis authored the study, entitled “Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model“. The results of the study revealed that because biodegradable products break down so quickly, they may actually do more harm than good.

The problem with biodegradable products is methane. Biodegradation is the process where microorganisms break down organic substances as a source of energy. Methane is a biproduct of this process. While not as prevalant as carbon dioxide, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas. About 35 percent of landfills in the US capture this methane and use it for energy, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 34 percent of landfills capture and burn the gas, and 31 percent just let the methane escape into the atmosphere.

Biodegradable products break down much more rapidly than regular trash sent to landfills. This alone is a good thing, and what was intended by the biodegradable product manufacturers and wanted by consumers who are trying to use greener products. But the landfills that collect methane are not required by law to begin that collection for at least two years after waste has been buried. With biodegradable products breaking down in less than two years, the result is much of that methane gas escaping into the atmosphere, resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions.

The study found that the more envirornmentally friendly approach is to modify biodegradable products so that they break down slower. Products would still break down far quicker than standard solid waste, but it would allow time for landfills to install gas collection systems and thereby prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere. “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.”

Consumers can do more on their part as well. In addition to purchasing biodegradable products, the practice of reducing, reusing, and recycling will go a long way towards decreasing waste sent to land fills and living more sustainably. From building greener rooms to creative reuse of garage doors, we can all do our part.

Photo via United Nations Photo

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