Surprise: Biodegradable Packaging Still Bad for the Planet

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Many companies say that their packaging will biodegrade in landfills and they make those claims in a way that makes people believe that that feature is a benefit. They are, however, actually touting that they are contributing to a system that hurts the environment.

As more companies are marketing the fact that their wrappers, boxes and other packaging materials will break down in landfills but that really is not such a positive when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste that is biodegrading in landfills has an overall negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and that is not going to get much better in the foreseeable future. The gas released is methane, a GHG that is much more dangerous than CO2.

Some landfill sites have installed gas-capturing systems to keep some gases generated by waste out of the atmosphere. The systems don't capture 100 percent of emissions, but can redirect a large chunk of them after a few years in operation.

Landfill gas is made up of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, the latter which is at least 25 times more potent than CO2 in contributing to Climate Change.

At sites where gas is captured, the methane is burned to generate electricity. Too many sites do not have any capturing facility at all and just vent the gasses into the atmosphere, which is a bad state of affairs. The shame is that we could do so much more with the methane that is released from such sites.

Researchers found that its takes seven units of methane being turned into energy to offset one unit of greenhouse gas emissions (when the impacts of the different gases are normalized). As of 2009, 30 percent of the methane created at landfills in the U.S. was being turned into energy, while 40 percent was being emitted, making emissions from landfill biodegradation overall harmful. What happened to the rest, the remaining 30 percent, they did not say.

Positive impact would come from a scenario where more than 70 percent of methane is turned into energy, but that comes with other caveats, like needing microorganisms to do a better job of weakening more methane.

While landfills do create methane, it would appear they don't do it as efficient as do methane digesters.

So, where do we go from here then as regards to packaging? Back to the cardboard box and paper bag might be the best way to tackle this as, unless toxic materials are used, cardboard and paper can be composted, thus creating soil.

While it is true that the composting of paper and cardboard also creates some gases of decay they operate a little different and at the same time the resulting compost in fact then aids soil in – once again – becoming a carbon sequestrator.

The next person who tells me that the biodegradable and compostable plastic this and plastic that does so in three months I would like to be wrapping in compostable plastic sheeting. The fact is that – as mentioned here – such packaging biodegrades in landfills or in other hot conditions within, maybe, just maybe, three months, but not in a home composting setup.

We also have to look at reducing and more or less eliminating – once again – packaging and here especially unnecessary packaging. No, I won't mention the replaceable toothbrush heads for the Braun electric toothbrush again. What you mean, I have?

© 2011