The battle continues to rage over the existence and potential human perpetuation of global warming (or "climate change," depending on who you're talking to). But, regardless of where one stands on the wide spectrum of environmental belief, the results of a new study by North Carolina State University will surely be of intrigue.
According to researchers, the feel-good biodegradable products that so many Americans purchase to avoid contributing negatively to the ecosystem, may actually do more harm than good. Once these items make their way into landfills, they allegedly begin to release a "powerful greenhouse gas" as they decay:
“Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane,” says Dr. Morton Barlaz, co-author of a paper describing the research and professor and head of NC State’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. “Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere.”
And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only about 35 percent of municipal solid waste goes to landfills that capture methane for energy use. EPA estimates that another 34 percent of landfills capture methane and burn it off on-site, while 31 percent allow the methane to escape.
“In other words,” Barlaz says, “biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed in landfills.”
This problem may be exacerbated by the rate at which these man-made biodegradable materials break down. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines call for products marked as “biodegradable” to decompose within “a reasonably short period of time” after disposal. But such rapid degradation may actually be environmentally harmful, because federal regulations do not require landfills that collect methane to install gas collection systems for at least two years after the waste is buried. If materials break down and release methane quickly, much of that methane will likely be emitted before the collection technology is installed. This means less potential fuel for energy use, and more greenhouse gas emissions.
You can access the complete study here. If these claims are true, environmentalists and government bodies, alike, have a lot more work ahead of them than they previously thought.
(h/t Weasel Zippers)