'Biodegradable' Doesn't Always Mean Earth-Friendly : Discovery News

Without proper composting facilities, throwing away biodegradable materials may actually be worse for the environment.

THE GIST:

Technology is now available to make a diverse collection of biodegradable products.

The missing link is composting facilities that can process the waste.

With such facilities, we could recover 300 times more of the waste that now ends up in dumps.

In an effort to ease the Earth's pain in a sea of single-serve containers, a growing number of companies are turning to biodegradable packaging in everything from yoga mats to disposable forks to plastic bags and more.

If we're going to keep throwing things away, the thinking goes: Why not make waste that either disintegrates into nothing or turns into something useful, like fertilizer?

These days, you can get biodegradable garbage bags, packing peanuts, forks and spoons, water bottles and clothing. Just this year, SunChips introduced compostable snack bags.

But even as the technology improves and new products arrive on store shelves, biodegradable packaging is not a cure-all for our waste problems, experts say. Biodegradable packaging that ends up in a landfill instead of a composting facility, for example, can be worse for the environment than ordinary plastic.

"The public looks at biodegradable as something magical," even though the term is mostly meaningless, said Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineer at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and science consultant to the Biodegradable Plastics Institute. "This is the most used and abused and misused word in our dictionary right now."

"Simply calling something biodegradable and not defining in what environment it is going to be biodegradable and in what time period it is going to degrade is very misleading and deceptive," he added.

Every year, Americans throw away 250 million tons of waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Two-thirds of that material ends up in landfills.

And the trash piles keep growing: The United States consumed 57 percent more stuff in 2000 than we did in 1957. In the past 50 years, our species has consumed more resources than in all of history before that.

No doubt, packaging is important. It keeps food from spoiling and protects products from damage during shipping. Given that packaging is here to stay, biodegradable versions are appealing, and the technology has made major advances in recent years.

One of the biggest players in the business is Cargill's NatureWorks, which uses corn to produce a biodegradable plastic building block called PLA. Another power player is BASF's Ecoflex, which is a synthetic material derived from petroleum. Plenty of other companies use sugarcane and other starches to make PLA and similar materials.

Web sites for these bioplastics tout their wonders. NatureWorks, for example, has calculated that manufacturing its PLA brand, called Ingeo, produces 43 percent fewer greenhouse gases and uses 48 percent less non-renewable energy than traditional plastic polymers, including PET and PVC.

But biodegradable plastics are not an easy fix for our environmental woes. In order to break down completely, a 100 percent biodegradable product needs to end up in a community-scale composting facility, which keeps proper temperature and moisture levels for long enough periods of time. Backyard bins just won't cut it.

In a landfill, a biodegradable container will probably sit there just as long as other plastics do. If it does disintegrate, one concern is that the plastic might release methane gas, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In an environment like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Narayan added, partially degradable plastics that are mixed with other additives are more likely to leach toxins that can enter the food chain.

"One has to be careful," Narayan said. "If it's only partially degradable, it's worse. Partial biodegradability is not an acceptable option."acceptable The good news is that a growing number of communities now have composting facilities that can completely break down true bioplastics, said Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-cycle, the nation's largest community recycler in Boulder, Colo. The next step, he said, is to develop more of these facilities, and to convince people to separate their waste correctly into three bins: recycling, composting, and trash.

"America is currently recovering only 30 percent of our discards, but we can do 90 percent, and we should," Lombardi said. "The technology is there for the most part. The missing piece now is infrastructure. This country needs to stop building landfills and begin building compost fills."

If there is a composting facility in your community, Narayan suggests looking on biodegradable packaging for a stamp that says ASTM D6400. That code means that the Biodegradable Products Institute has certified the product as fully compostable.

For consumers who have neither a composting facility in their neighborhood nor a worm-filled bucket in their backyards, buying biodegradable products isn't going to make much of a difference -- except as a statement that the concept is important to them. Pressuring your local government to motivate and compost, Lombardi said, might be a better strategy.

"People are waking up to the fact that every town needs a composting facility," he said. "It's one of the good news stories out there."."