Biodegradeable products may be more harmful to the environment

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Think you're doing the right thing by using biodegradeable products? Think again.

Research from North Carolina State University shows that they're actually doing more harm than good, by 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. "Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere."

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only about a third of municipal solid waste goes to landfills that capture methane for energy use. Another third is captured and burned off-site, and the rest allowed to escape.

"In other words,” Barlaz says, “biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed in landfills."

Ironically, the problem is made worse by the fact that Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines call for products marked as biodegradable to decompose within 'a reasonably short period of time' after disposal.

But this can actually be environmentally harmful, as federal regulations don't require landfills that collect methane to install gas collection systems for at least two years after the waste is buried.

If materials break down and release methane quickly, much of that methane will likely be emitted before the collection technology is installed.

"If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills, we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly – in contrast to FTC guidance," says Barlaz.