Biodegradable products are touted as more environmentally friendly than products which take hundreds or thousands of years to break down. A study recently released is shedding the light on the potentially negative side-effects of biodegradable plastics, with many concerned it puts forth the wrong message.
The study was performed by two colleagues at North Carolina State University, with lead researcher being Morton Barlaz. Two particular types of biodegradable plastics were highlighted in the study, PLAs and PHAs. These plastics are estimated to only be one percent of all biowaste which ends up in landfills across the country.
The study concluded that the biodegradable plastics, which inherently break down more quickly than other plastics, result in a rapid release of methane. Methane, a greenhouse gas emission many times stronger than carbon dioxide, is considered a major threat to climate change.
The biodegradable plastics releasing methane more readily due to their breakdown is not always an issue, at least when the landfills they are in collect methane gas. However, not all landfills in the United States collect methane–although hundreds do.
Despite this potential negative for the products, the scientists pointed to the fact that the study only considers the end of the product’s life cycle. In addition, products which are disposed of in the best manner for the biodegradable container–such as composting for many, is preferable and greener for the environment than the landfill.
Barlaz stated: “I want to caution that I have focused solely on the disposal, end-of-life phase. If you are truly asking which is better or worse, you should look at the emissions from the manufacturing phase plus disposal for whatever materials you’re trying to compare.” Barlaz pressed that he was simply trying to point out that biodegradable products are not automatically better for the environment, despite many misconceptions.