Does “Biodegradable” Really Matter?

There was a very interesting post over on Discovery the other day about whether or not “biodegradable” means Earth-friendly. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t.

The trouble with biodegradable goods is that very few of them really are composted. They aren’t meant to go into the landfill. If they aren’t disposed of correctly, they can’t break down properly.

From the article:

But biodegradable plastics are not an easy fix for our environmental woes. In order to break down completely, a 100 percent biodegradable product needs to end up in a community-scale composting facility, which keeps proper temperature and moisture levels for long enough periods of time. Backyard bins just won’t cut it.

In a landfill, a biodegradable container will probably sit there just as long as other plastics do. If it does disintegrate, one concern is that the plastic might release methane gas, a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In an environment like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Narayan added, partially degradable plastics that are mixed with other additives are more likely to leach toxins that can enter the food chain.

“One has to be careful,” Narayan said. “If it’s only partially degradable, it’s worse. Partial biodegradability is not an acceptable option.”

It’s important, if you’re buying products in biodegradable packaging to know what conditions they need and if appropriate facilities are available in your area. There are some communities that have the facilities available now to compost true bioplastics correctly. The article notes that if we keep up the improvements, we could eventually recover 90 percent of discards.

The article notes that if you have a composting facility in your area, look for a ASTM D6400 label. This means it’s fully compostable.

In the meantime, pay attention where you can to what is compostable, especially if it’s safe to do so in your own backyard. What’s the point in waiting for community facilities if you can handle it right at home?