Biodegradable’s Dark Side Faster Breakdown of Biodegradable Products Could Be Bad for the Environment

Biodegradable products sound like a sure bet—a way to minimize the impact of accumulated waste. But there’s a downside to the rapid decomposition that these products promise: methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

biodegradabe methane, credit: Skinner08, FlickrCCAll landfill waste creates methane gas as it breaks down, which is up to 25 times more potent in its heat-trapping properties than carbon dioxide. At some landfills, this gas is converted to energy. But even landfills that capture methane typically allow two years until collection, the amount of time it takes for most waste to degrade. Biodegradable products decay faster, releasing methane into the atmosphere before it can be captured.

In fact, researchers from North Carolina State University concluded that because of the methane problem, slower biodegradation is more environmentally friendly. Dr. Morton Barlaz, coauthor of the study, suggests three steps for consumers in light of these findings. First, minimize waste by consuming less. Second, look for products with little or no packaging. Third, get involved in your community by asking your local landfill to aggressively collect gas, not just to reduce greenhouse emissions but also to harness methane for energy use.

If production emissions are the same for two products, biodegradable is not the best choice until landfill management is changed to make sure that all methane gas is captured. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in learning how your local landfill handles gas collection, call your director of public works.