As a typical consumer goes about their weekly grocery shopping, they are faced with numerous product differentiators, such as “all natural” or “biodegradable.” When making a selection, those with the eco-conscious mind often lead towards the products packaged in biodegradable containers, over those without mention. The question is which is better for the environment, the bio-degradable packaging or the one without mention?
Breaking through the corporate greenwashing of biodegradable packaging
A common myth surrounding biodegradable products is that they are a more environmentally friendly option, since it will just return to nature once dumped in the landfill. The fact is that nearly nothing biodegrades in the local landfill because it was not designed to let decomposition happen.
Many of the biodegradable plastics and other packaging materials require oxygen flow to properly decompose over time. The way our landfills are designed causes very poor oxygen flow, thus stunting or in some cases stopping the all-important decomposition process.
The EPA’s website provides an overview of the modern landfill and how protections from methane emissions, unstable soil conditions and ground water pollution produces an air-tight barrier. If its air tight, oxygen can’t come in, thus decomposition is stunted. It’s interesting how our environmental protection measures are actually interfering with the modern eco-products.
So what’s the optimal solution?
Finding the optimal solution is a little difficult, as with most green initiatives, the right solution is complex and is situation specific. The new biodegradable plastics are not recyclable, except for a few towns that have the special facilities. Therefore, in many cases the very solution that was supposed to help reduce waste is causing more.
It would be irresponsible of us not to call out the inherent waste we produce from single use packaging, such as plastic grocery bags and plastic water bottles. The obvious alternatives are reusable bags and reusable water bottles which are BPA free. However, let’s assume that we can’t solve our wasteful society in a single article and look at other alternatives.
Until the technologies change or the world migrates to a sustainable packaging approach, using the traditional recyclable materials makes more sense. This extends the life, nearly indefinitely for many materials such as plastics, cardboard and similar.
The idea behind biodegradable packaging material is sound, however the product lifecycle needs to be re-evaluated. If the product could obtain the desired and quick decomposition inside a landfill setting, it would have a hero’s welcome.
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