Greenhouse Gases and Composting

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Bio-plastics release harmful greenhouse gases when breaking down, when decomposing, was the heading in a UK Guardian newspaper article on Saturday, April 26, 2008, in what would appear to be an piece against bio-plastics and the use of food crops, such as maize, for the production of said plastics.

All composting processes, which is decomposition, releases methane gas, regardless what is being broken down in this process. Does this then means that we should stop composting waste? I do not think so.

Such headlines and articles are alarmist; the question is though, as to the why. Why this article and why in such a manner against bio-plastic?

As far as bio-plastics are concerned, do we really need cornstarch for this and similar things? I do not think so, and the same is true for so-called bio-fuels.

There should be enough “waste” cellulose around from forestry operations and others to use instead of all those others and maybe, just maybe, it is time also for the good ol' paper bag to make a reappearance on the stage for loose produce. Do we really have to have it all conveniently packaged in plastic bags or like four apples on Styrofoam tray shrink wrapped? I doubt it. Our parents and grandparents bought such things loose at the greengrocers or at the market and brought it home in paper bags. This was also much better for the fruits and vegetables as they could breathe in the paper bags and they did not rot that easily.

When it comes to soft fruit, such as say strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and such like then punnets are called for but, yet again, do they have to be plastic. In days of old those were of split wood, for instance. Time we got back to the way it was done in that time.

Other fruit and vegetables definitely does not need the plastic bag and shrink wrap treatment and such safety considerations.

A great contributing factor, though, to the plastic food packaging problem, and this is primarily, I believe, where bio-plastics will be used, is the laziness and the inability by people of today to cook from scratch. But I digressed. Happens occasionally, I know.

I just find the comments as to the release of greenhouse gases in the process of composting such plastics rather ridiculous in the extreme as the same gases, that is to say methane and other such gases, are released in all composting processes and by everything that decomposes, even from the humble compost bin or composter in the backyard.

While landfills and composters all give off methane gas and others the methane would not have to, at least not from commercial landfills, ever have to end up in the atmosphere in the first place. In the case of commercial landfills the gas could be safely extracted and be used for cooking and heating and especially for the running of electricity power stations.

The amount of plastic packaging, and not only foodstuffs but in general, must be reduced or gotten rid off altogether where possible. Loose produce in the humble paper bag has worked in the days gone by but, it would appear that, in our modern world, if it has not got a barcode on it it cannot be checked out at the till, or so, at least, it would appear. Time for a change, methinks.

Other plastic packaging on non-food products must be replaced by cardboard packaging, as it also was once, in the time of our childhood – at least in mine it was still – and in the time of our parents and grandparents. Why does something have to be packaged in the kind of plastic packaging that one needs hammer and chisel and saw to get into – I am sure you know the kind I mean, the “blister pack” - only to find that there is more blister packaging even further inside.

It is definitely high time that we were rethinking the packaging issue but, back to the gases, in order to sum up: all composting processes release those gases whether composting of vegetable or other organic matter or such bio-plastics. It is not peculiar to bio-plastics, though the writers of the articles that appeared did make it look thus. Why? Why the scare mongering approach?

© M Smith (Veshengro), April 2008