back to article Biodegradable products are often worse for the planet

Stateside boffins say that, contrary to popular perception, it would often be better for the planet if people avoided using biodegradable products compliant with the recommended US government guidelines. This is because biodegradable wastes – for instance cardboard cups, "eco friendly" disposable nappies, various kinds of …


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  1. Richard Fletcher

    Spray it with plastic

    The easy way to stop biodegradable stuff producing the methane is to spray it with plastic. This then prevents oxygen from getting into the mix. This happens in the UK, or at least it used to when my wife did some work at a few landfills.

    Seems backward to me though.

  2. Robert Grant Silver badge

    Not the whole story, natch

    See also:

    1) Animals can't get caught in them

    2) They aren't made of petroleum/natural gas (they're renewable)

    1. This post has been deleted by a moderator

      1. joylessdave

        RE: Not the whole story, natch

        - The decaying corpse of animals that have choked/otherwise died on non-biodegradable materials is going to release a lot more methane, a lot more quickly, because corpses degrade quickly

        generally a decaying corpse exposed to the air would release CO2 (and some other gasses such as H2S) not methane

        the production of methane requires an anoxic environment such as being buried in a landfill (Though it does take queit a while for a landfill to become anoxic which doesn't appear to have been taken into account in this study). a body buried potentially quiet deep in a landfill will take rather longer to degrade as the predation and insect effects will not spread and expose more of the corpse.

    2. Marvin the Martian

      Landfill should be outlawed anyhow.

      The history of landfill is very short and twisted --- a few people got rich over it quickly (especially the mafia in italy) but that's about it for silver linings.

      There was the idea that you can scoop large pits in the land to build new towns etc, and then fill those holes with the waste produced by those towns. There's no way these pits will be reuseable in our civilisation's lifespan.

      1. Greg J Preece

        Bollocks, you're talking it

        Have a look at a modern landfill, before and after. California's got some good examples. Their horrible, unusable landfills are parks, housing estates, etc, and the methane is captured and used to power thousands of homes.

        Not everything about landfill is evil, and what's the alternative? Incineration?

        1. Owen Carter

          Flame me

          Yep; the alternative is incineration; and it's a good alternative too. Done properly (ie; at plasma like temperatures) it both produces minimal pollution and provides heat for residences. Done badly it's awful.. but still safer than badly done nuclear.

          But the manipulations of the 'reality? never heard of it' elements in Greenpeace; clueless journalists on a mission, and greedy operators who allowed plants to pollute while creaming profits at the expense of our atmosphere have given it a reputation that is far, far worse then the somewhat negative one it deserves.

          Reaching a nearly closed loop of proper recycling is a lot better for us all in the long run.

        2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Thumb Up

          @Greg J Preece

          Actually for many places incineration *is* the most efficient way to shrink the volume of rubbish by a *large* amount.

          In Europe the heat is usually designed to supply district heating and electricity generation, giving a de-centralised robust heat and power system.

          Note also that like *all* static large power stations it's possible to mount *very* efficient pollution controls in such systems

          I agree with the report. It's time to end landfill. Methane collection *has* got better. It's better not to *generate* Methane in the first place.

          1. This post has been deleted by a moderator

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Well one can't crap miracles, we're generating biodegradable waste as fast as we can !

    Of course the main problem is too many people creating more waste than the planet can cope with.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      We need a cull!

      See above

      1. Anonymous Coward


        They used to just call them wars.

        It's not like most of them ever solved anything other than reducing the population. The trick is to keep them from getting too big (see icon).


        On a more serious note the real goal should be to stop creating so much crap in the first place, many products come with far too much packaging.

        Though I am against the EU proposed outright ban on plastic shopping bags; as I would then have to BUY bin liners.

        Net gain for me and planet = zero, net gain for supermakets & bin liner makers = more prifits.

        I also find it rediculous that some councils refuse to move over to wheely bins; they last decades take much less effort to collect (so they pay for themselves that way) and you don't have to increase the amount of rubish by wrapping it in lots of plastic sacks.

  4. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Broccoli Spears
    Thumb Down

    Stateside boffins must try harder then...

    Rather than pandering to the laziness of the public (on all sides of the atlantic) with this unhelpful rhetoric, perhaps these boffins could come up with a programme of education regarding waste products in general, coupled with incentives at a policy level for both manufacturers and consumers regarding the reduction of waste in packaging across the board.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    So why don't we..

    ... store the biodegradeable rubbish somewhere enclosed, so we can capture the methane as it quickly breaks up. Somewhere like an unused mine perhaps, it's not like we have many still in production, and these things go on for miles round here.

    Or has my simple laymans solution got a gaping big hole in it?

    1. Mike Richards

      An even better idea

      Make the packaging so delicious that the user cannot help but gobble it up rather than casting it into the garbage.

      Sounds hard doesn't it? But many would argue McDonalds have already perfected containers with more flavour and nutrition than their contents.

    2. LoopyChew

      Along these lines

      Would it be possible to divide existing landfills into smaller "pockets" for methane to be collected more efficiently?

    3. TonyG

      ...but we do.

      Up here on the Isle of Lewis all biodegradable rubbish is collected (so grass, cardboard, wood and so on) and put through a digester at Creed to produce methane which is then either burnt for electricity (or turned into Hydrogen gas) and the remnants is used as compost.

      Works well for a pilot scheme.

      More information here

  7. NoneSuch Silver badge

    My cunning plan... to take my travel mug into the coffee shop each morning and have them use that for my Java. When done, I rinse it out and it is ready to go again.

    Regular people, being the lazy so and so's they are, would rather walk in each morning empty handed, get a paper or plastic cup then moan about its impact on the environment and not actually doing anything about the issue.

    Last week I said that we should not go to another planet until we sorted ourselves out here and got lambasted by people saying we would never have a Utopia here. I never called for a Utopia. Just limited responsibility at the individual level to stop people from piddling in the water supply as it were. Responsible people are not chucking fast food containers out their car windows when done eating are they, yet take a look at the roadside on your drive home tonight.

    Quick survey: Each Up thumb is someone who uses a travel mug and avoids the problem. Each Down thumb is an irresponsible sod who has a paper or Styrofoam cup on their desk and bemoans the fact the world is falling apart because of it.

    You know who you are.

    1. Midnight

      Re: My cunning plan...

      The problem with your cunning plan is that you can take your lovely little travel mug up to the counter of a certain nautical-themed coffee house and ask for a drink which is then...

      Wait for it...

      Poured into a paper cup to ensure that it is the correct size. All in accordance with store policy, which will cost someone his or her job if it is not followed to the letter.

      The coffee is then poured into your mug.

      The paper cup, having been used already, is then thrown away.

      Even better yet, you could walk into a well known north american coffee and donut chain named after a less well known hockey player, show them the refillable mug which you bought right there the day before, and smugly ask to have it filled at a discounted price in accordance with their store policy of reducing waste.

      Only to have it handed back to you along with an empty paper cup, which you are then expected to tear to pieces for the chance to win valuable prizes like another cup of coffee.

      Sometimes the coffee shop's right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, and sometimes it is just waiting for the left hand to hold still for a moment so that it can stick a knife into its back.

    2. Steven Knox
      Thumb Down


      I use a travel mug. I don't chuck trash out of my car. When I have to use disposable materials, I look for recyclable options and recycle them.

      And I still contribute to the problem. Because there are some things I need and some things I want which aren't available in recyclable packaging. And many of those things are themselves not recyclable. I'm quite sure you're the same way -- if for no other reason than the fact that you've used an electronic device to post on this site at least twice. Do a little research on the power requirements, resource requirements, and actual recyclability of your toys (including your share of El Reg's server requirements, natch), then reconsider your words.

      So stop pissing on people who are, when taken in perspective, only marginally less responsible than you. Congratulations on your efforts to be ecologically responsible. Now maybe you can work on that shit "holier-than-thou" attitude.

  8. schnide

    The key part for me is..

    "..biodegradable products are not necessarily more environmentally friendly WHEN DISPOSED IN LANDFILLS."

    Well then let's not dispose of them in landfills and stop this ridiculous idea that persisting with what we've got already is the best way? If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got. And we haven't got it that good right now.

    El Reg, you rock, but please stop with the endless eco-bashing.

  9. Scott Broukell


    That's where this biodegradable waste (sorry, resource) should be going - into a great big plant that uses bacteria to break it all down and release the gases which are then burnt to power the digestion plant and the recovered heat energy keeps it cosy in winter you know. Then the solid, inert waste, can be used in all manner of things - even an ingredient in house bricks I believes. There's very few of these plants operating in the UK, largely cos folks come over all nimby 'bout the idea. Yes, it means more effort on our part sorting and collecting, but landfill is a bit scarce these days and costly. Such materials should, from now on, be referred to as RESOURCES methinks.

    I know the above synopsis is a bit simplistic, but I really don't know what we are waiting for - "where there's muck there's brass"

  10. BC Boy

    How complex is this really?

    Use. Less. Stuff.

    The subtle multiple accounts analysis to find out what technologies allow us to preserve our odious lifestyles unchanged highlight the delusion of status quo consumption.

    Heading for the door because I realize this is not a welcome idea.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Perspective please

    Aren't these cardboard/paper products a drop in the bucket compared to all the fossil fuels we burn?

    What's next, taxing my compost bin for methane emissions? Should we be eating strictly shrinkwrapped processed food to minimize greenhouse emissions? Gimme a break :)

    1. Oninoshiko


      You'll give them ideas!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      re: Perspective...

      Just like the shopping bags...

      About two years ago there was a very short lived TV advert for the new VW Polo diesel; which stated that the average UK driver would save enough fuel driving one of these over an equivalent petrol engined car to make >10,000 supermarket carrier bags every year.

      I always assumed the greenies complained as it made their preaching campaigns seem silly.

      Saving a little here and there does no harm, but the there are lots of things that could make a bigger difference. Also when restrictions are placed on the manufacturer to do something (like reduce packaging) the end user benefits without any action by them being necessay.

  12. Elmer Phud

    The long view

    Doesn't it all end up getting squashed down eventually?

    (Not that there will be any humans around in the few millions of years it takes to produce oil or coal or gas) I wonder what the layers would be like.

  13. bitmap animal

    Waste sorting is the problem

    The critical part that we (as in we, the worlds population) needs to get right is the sorting of the post consumer waste stream. Pre-consumer is pretty much working well.

    Different products need to be treated differently and it's not always easy for the consumer to do that. They need the infrastructure in place before they are able to do that effectively.

    At the moment, in theory, nothing compostable or any form of degradable should go into land-fill. Getting that right will reduce the volume of land-fill and also the gasses subsequently released.

    At the moment, IMHO, reuse and recycling are the ways we should be focusing.

    Oxy-degradable plastics are oil based with an additive to break down the plastic into small enough molecules so the microbes can then compost it. Good thing is for lazy litterbugs they vanish from view a few weeks after being discarded into the countryside. Bad news is it's oil based, can't be recycled and also breaks down into small enough bits of plastic to [potentially] enter the food chain.

    PLA – corn starch – based plastics do not come from oil, instead they use [on the whole] GM based corn affecting the food prices and supply capacity. They also need to be disposed of in an industrial composting facility – put them in your compost heap and they will stay as plastic. The worst feature I see is if they get into the recycling stream and get mixed with a batch of PET then the whole batch has to be destroyed. The consumer can't readily tell the material difference and it's very hard for the sorters at the recycling plant to do so.

    1. Mephistro

      I agree with most of what you wrote...

      ... but for this phrase:

      "The consumer can't readily tell the material difference and it's very hard for the sorters at the recycling plant to do so"

      Putting a 'biodegradable/recyclable ' logo in the bags would surely help there.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Up

      @bitmap animal

      "Waste sorting is the problem "

      Hits the nail right on the head.

      Sorting and *separately* and then keeping them apart so each wast stream is dealt with as necessary is *the* big issue for domestic waste.

  14. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Blame the children

    If people didn't keep having children (who admittedly are biodegradeable) then they wouldn't need nappies (biodegradeable or otherwise)

    And the Daily Mail wouldn't have anything to worry about

    1. Nick Gibbins

      Touching cloth

      Some of us use nappies that are both reusable *and* biodegradable on our children. We even buy nappies second-hand.

      Cloth nappies were good enough for me when I was a kid, and they're good enough for my kids.

  15. Nigel 11

    CO2 vs Methane

    "Methane is, of course, a vastly more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2"

    True but rather misleading. Methane is not long-term persistent in the atmosphere. It oxidizes to CO2 plus water. Half-life is about twelve years. More methane is contributed by live cows than landfill. That in turn is dwarfed by what could be released if methane hydrates in permafrost started thawing out (which has the potential for a rapid runaway one-shot global warming event, which the recent fossil record suggests has happened many times in the past).

    The story for CO2 is far more complex. Plants absorb a few percent of the total atmospheric CO2 every spring, but give almost all of it back come autumn. There's an annual CO2-concentration oscillation reflecting the greater land area in the Northern hemisphere temperate zone compared to the Southern hemisphere. We don't know whether the vegetable kingdom responds to more CO2 in the atmosphere and/or higher temperatures by sinking any carbon more permanently, let alone on what timescale. We do know that the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the more a plant adjusts its growth to favour roots over leaves.

    We could almost certainly selectvely breed strains of wheat that encapsulate carbon in silica nodules in their roots, thereby rot-proofing it in the soil for milennia. Wheat naturally does this, some strains much more than others. Given the scale of wheat cultivation, this could provide a significant CO2 sink. AFAIK it's not known why wheat and some other grasses evolved to do this.

    Most Greens don't know any of these things. It begs too many difficult questions and offers not enough certain answers.

    Don't get me started on the complexities of water vapour - another greenhouse gas nearly as potent as methane, but when it condenses it forms clouds, which reflect sunlight and cool the planet.

  16. Richard Porter

    Biodegradable bags are a nuisance

    You put something away in a plastic bag and next time you look at it the bag has disintegrated and the contents plus flakes of plastic are loose in the drawer/cupboard/shed/whatever.

  17. h4rm0ny

    Here's a simple trick to reduce rubbish...

    Go back to selling food loose, rather than pre-packaged. Obviously not baked beans etc. but if you go to France for example, you just scoop the tomatoes or whathaveyou into a paper bag, they weigh it and charge you accordingly. In the UK, you far too often end up buying a packet of the veg you want in a little tray and clear plastic wrapper. Not only is that instant waste, but because you almost always want slightly more or slightly less than the amount in the packet, you end up throwing food out.

    I'm not normally one for saying the old ways were better, but in this case...

    1. Anonymous Coward

      The good old days of re-use over re-cycle.

      Like the milkman! Every day he took the empty bottle away to be washed and reused. It takes much less fuel to wash a bottle than melt the glass and make it again.

      Likewise as a kid I remember the best way to get some pennies was to take the empty beer and lemon aid bottles back to the Off-license/Corner Shop for collection and reuse. This was done for a centry of more, then the supermarkets came along and it was too much of a bother to do.

  18. Herby

    Just remember...

    People are "biodegradable" as well! Much as society attempts to not make this happen. They even go into "specialized" landfills all sealed up.


  19. Anonymous Coward

    who paid..

    Makes you wonder who sponsored this research.

  20. John Tserkezis

    Just doing my bit...

    I'll have that dolphin burger please.

    Yes, the one in the CFC-based styrofoam container.

  21. Ooo-wait-BUT!

    Oh looky, that's much better news than I first expected

    What a timely collapse of economies round the globe.

    I do believe we'll see much more environmental recovery over the next couple of decades... as people starve.

  22. Tom 7 Silver badge

    People are not biodegradable

    Most of the Californians I've met certainly aren't.

  23. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    While landfill *stays* the cheapest way to dump waste it'll be used.

    There is an EU wide landfill tax which is rising.

    Guess what. The use of landfill (and the opening of new landfill sites) is falling.

    Of course correlation is not causality but....

  24. Nick Pettefar

    Freecycle !

    double-U, double-U, double-U, dot, Free Cycle, dot Org /group/UK

    Just do it!

    We also need techie moderators so ask your local group how you can help.

    Freegle is good too if there is no local Freecycle group.

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