Research shows that so-called biodegradable products are actually doing more harm than good in landfills, because they are releasing a powerful greenhouse gas as they 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. Researcher Morton Barlaz says, "Biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane. Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere.
"In other words, biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly when disposed in landfills. If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills, we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly--in contrast to FTC guidance."
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