Saturday, December 27, 2008

Biodegradable Myth

While sitting in the stands at an indoor soccer game, I was chatting friendly fellow soccer mummy named Robin. Friendly Robin had been reading my blog and really knew a thing or two about being green.

Robin mentioned that her family recently test drove new biodegradable plates made from banana leaves. The package promised Robin that the plates would biodegrade. Any logical person would assume that biodegradable plates (or bags or cups or utensils) easily break down without creating trash. And we all know that trash isn't something that we need more of on the planet.

What a load of greenwashing!

Since I'm not a scientist and refuse to wear white (black is more stylish), I will not regurgitate the technical mumbo jumbo about biodegration. Basically, you only need four things to break down biodegradable materials. Oxygen, water, nutrition and heat.

In most of today's modern landfills your trash is first disposed of in a plastic bag and then the entire landfill is capped in plastic. Oxygen and water do not penetrate the plastic in the volume needed to break down the biodegradable materials.

Biodegradable materials like veggie scraps, dryer lint, egg shells, wine corks and banana leaf plates can take much, much longer to break down in a landfill then they do in a simple compost bin. For example, if it takes say one month for the average newspaper to compost in a compost bin, that number could jump up expediently in a capped landfill.

Take Hubby's favorite soap as a real life example. This particular Tom's of Maine soap comes packaged in a biodegradable plastic wrap. Instead of landing in the landfill in another plastic bag, I toss it in the backyard compost bin. Once the plastic goes in the bin it seems to magically disappear. With all of the soap that hubby uses (he sure likes his showers) I have yet to see the biodegradable plastic again after it lands in my compost bin. The time it takes to compost seems amazingly short.

(Is it too early to ask Santa for a new camera for Christmas 2009?)
(I'll update this photo when I can catch a little natural light)
What if I was to toss this same biodegradable soap wrapper in the trash? How long would it linger there?
I have posted this question before, but it is worth asking again. Why don't more towns and states offer free or reduced compost bins? Don't they realize they will save more money and resources by simply educating the public about the simplicity of composting and supplying a bin cheaply? How many tons of food and yard waste could they keep out of their landfills? How much money could towns save by cutting the volume of trash?
I recently posed this question to the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority. They replied that they don't have enough storage to support the program. I also asked my local highway department about about discounted compost bins for residents. They said that they aren't planning any such program. They are sure missing the boat.


Erikka said...

Good point Gruppie. Thanks for keeping it real.

Lynn from said...

This is an area where socially conscious stores can make a difference. Some stores that sell biodegradable products will take them back after use to put in their commercial compost heap. In my area (DC), My Organic Market does this. You might try putting some pressure on stores that are selling biodegradable products but not informing people about proper use. (Yeah, I know, in your spare time...)

It's too bad CT is not more progressive re composting. My community offers everyone a free compost bin. I visited Chicago and saw that they do the same thing - they have quite a huge program. And commercial composting is growing. So in a few years the available facilities should catch up w/these products.

In the meantime, people paying more for biodegradable and then throwing them in the trash are literally just throwing their money away!

Gruppie Girl said...

Erikka~ You are a great cheerleader! Thanks a ton!

Lynn~ Thanks for sharing some great points!

I have yet to see a market compost or accept it's biodegradable products back. I will speak to the owner of my local natural food store to see if she will implement a similar program.