Biodegradable Packaging Still Bad for the Planet
Posted on March 30, 2011 by derek
We had addressed the question on “biodegradable plastic” last week, and why it’s not something that I’m going to recommend to anyone. Here’s bits of that argument, with some added new research.
Firstly, what is biodegradable? In the marketing jargon for some of these products, biodegradable means that the material will break down in a relatively short period of time (6 months – 2 years), and is hence “better for the environment” because it will “disappear” shortly after disposal, and it won’t lead to this.
New research from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in the US, has found that (from Greenbiz.com) “Companies that say their packaging will biodegrade in landfills as if that feature is a benefit are actually touting that they’re contributing to a system that hurts the environment”.
The problem, in simple terms is this:
- When anything biodegrades, the process produces greenhouse gases such as methane and co2.
- These gases escape into the atmosphere, unless captured or redirected.
- Captured emissions can be combusted to use as energy, but at a large scale this may require additional steps.
- In the US, only 30% of the gas is captured and 40% released, resulting in a net negative.
For Singapore, we don’t even have landfills! All our trash ends up in the incinerator, which makes it even more unlikely that the biodegradability property of such materials matter. Now if you’re making an effort to direct these plastics away from the general to composting waste streams, good on you. But I’d probably be getting my hopes too up if I were to get myself to believe that this happens to the majority of “biodegradable” materials (such as plastic).
That being said, the issue isn’t really about the biodegradability of these materials. It’s not wrong to say that “biodegradability” can be a positive trait, but if it’s going to end up being burnt to ashes (in the case of Singapore), then what’s the point? In essence, we’re not letting something that is supposed to “biodegrade” do what it was designed to do!
At the end of the day, we need to think about our “green” products more holistically: The “green” characteristics of a product is 1 thing, but if that characteristic doesn’t harmonise with the rest of our systems, it’s not going to result in a net benefit.
More on “Green Products” here.