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Biodegradable Products Are Good For Landfills, But Bad For The Climate

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. A new study finds that while biodegradable products help reduce mass in landfills, they may be worsening global warning. Luckily, there’s a solution: Make earth-friendly plastics that actually disintegrate more slowly.

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Biodegradable products, which slowly decay into inoffensive chemicals instead of clogging up landfills until the end of time, seem like they shouldn’t have a downside. But one of those chemicals is apparently not so inoffensive: methane gas. If a landfill has high-tech methane-capture technology, then that’s free fuel. But if they don’t (and most don’t), that methane is going straight into the atmosphere. And methane is actually a far worse greenhouse gas than much-derided carbon dioxide.

Methane, by itself, is a useful product that can be harvested and turned into biofuels. But the EPA guesses that only about 35% of the solid waste we all throw out ends up in landfills that capture methane and burn, while about 31% ends up in landfills that simply let it drift skywards.

The wrinkle is that the FTC only considers products “biodegradable” if they actually do that within a “reasonably short” interlude. But another, uncoordinated part of the government doesn’t require any capturing, burning, or harvesting of methane until two years after waste is buried. Everything biodegrades before landfills are required to capture the carbon. Because of this gap in regulatory windows, the payoff of using bioplastics becomes more murky.

There’s hope, though. The study, from North Carolina State University, suggests that we simply design bioplastics that take longer to degrade–ignoring FTC advice–then the majority of methane production will occur after gas recovery and storage systems are installed. This means the gas won’t be vented to the air, and it can actually find a use that benefits the environment by substituting for another fuel. We’re tempted to say that rockets would be a neat use for it.

[Image: Flickr user dnorman]

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