Why we should eliminate the "B word" from sustainability conversations

By Adam Gendell in Sustainable Packaging on December 31, 2013


At first blush, it certainly sounds like a good word, a warm and fuzzy word. A word that surely belongs hand-in-hand with the many R words we use in sustainability conversations. It's a word that conveys a sense of closing nature's loop and returning materials right back into the bosom of mother earth. But the B word—"biodegradable"—has no place in modern sustainability conversations. It's outdated. Maybe it used to be the holy grail of the quest to make materials more sustainable, but we've gotten smarter. We've learned. It's now time for our lexicon to reflect how much we know, and it's time for us to use our modern understanding of sustainability to have meaningful conversations—conversations that don't include yesterday's buzzwords. So, thanks, B word, we've learned a lot from talking about you, but it's time for us to part ways.


The problem with the B word? Its connotation that it's always a good thing and never a bad thing. Truth be told, it's not necessarily either. Sometimes it can lend positivity to a sustainability profile, while sometimes it can be a detractor. It's like if we were to automatically assume superior sustainability for square packages, or transparent packages, or purple packages. Biodegradability is an arbitrary quality that needs to be expanded and explained, not simply touted. First question when you hear the B word: Where is it likely to biodegrade? In a home composting operation? In an industrial composting operation? On the side of the interstate? In a landfill? It's the same as assessing real estate: location, location, location. Packaging producers can't know where their packaging is going to end up, so if we're going to assess what the B word means for a package's sustainability, we have to assess each and every likely scenario.


No matter what we do, a lot of packaging will end up in a landfill where it's unlikely that biodegradability will do it any good. In the oxygen-deprived enclosure of a landfill, things biodegrade anaerobically, which essentially is a big word meaning they generate a lot of methane as they decompose. Methane, you may have heard, is an extra-potent greenhouse gas. Landfills are the third biggest source of manmade methane emissions to the atmosphere. If trash didn't have that pesky quality of biodegradability, landfills would be a bit more benign.


As litter on the side of the interstate? That's a bit trickier. I doubt anyone can argue that we'd be better off if litter didn't biodegrade, but there's a lot of complexity in judging the answer. Do we want consumers to think that a package is litter-friendly? I would argue that every package needs clear instructions to tell a consumer what they need to do to send a package to its best possible end-of-life scenario. Touting the B word on-package doesn't do that. Then of course there's the issue of time. If something takes 10 years to biodegrade on the side of the interstate (or say, in the ocean), that's a lot of time for damage to be done. Once again, just using the B word doesn't tell us the whole story.


Then there's composting, where biodegradation time can spell the difference between beneficial recovery and more-harm-than-good contamination. A host of other factors (potential plant toxicity of any additives in a package, for instance), matter when it comes to composting. And biodegradability, in its general sense, tells us nothing about whether a package fits in a composting operation.


The concept of compostability is constantly becoming better defined and it's this C word, not the B word, that tells us if a package has the potential for a beneficial end-of-life scenario involving its decomposition. So yes, a package can be biodegradable and not compostable. A biodegradable package can even detract from the success of a composting operation. Once more, the B word really doesn't tell the whole story.


A sub-topic that rightfully deserves its own article is the idea that we should ever put biodegradability additives in petroleum-based plastics. If you've read this far, you probably get it without me going into detail. But suffice it to say that the carbon in petroleum-based plastics was sequestered from the atmosphere millions of years ago and it makes the most sense to keep that carbon bound up in a useful material. If we allow those plastics to biodegrade, we release their carbon content into the atmosphere and we also send the wrong signal to the recyclers who offer the best chance for a sustainable usage of petroleum-based plastics. It's just another example, though perhaps counterintuitive, where a material is much more useful to us and has a greater potential for sustainability when it doesn't biodegrade.


Again, though, this isn't to say that biodegradability is automatically bad. For many materials, it can be good. But if it's good, we should be able to talk about its compostability and use the word that actually carries meaning. If not, you can be hip, be informed, be smart, be modern—and keep the B word out of the sustainability conversation.


Author Adam Gendell is a project manager at GreenBlue's Sustainable Packaging Coalition. For more
information about the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, visit www.sustainablepackaging.org.




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I agree that the word Biodegradable has been misused. Go to a dictionary and you will see that the “new” definition really is not accurate. I always have thought biodegradability to be a tree falling in the woods and then the bacteria and fungi slowly breaking it down. This is no where close to what compostability is. Compostabilty is a prescribed process requiring aeration, heat, and moisture. If you take it to the level of ASTM 6400, then it must compost in a set amount of days in commercial and municipal composts, which there are few of. What is the consumer supposed to do with the cups and cutleries that are ASTM 6400- mail them in like an empty printer cartridge? There are fewer and fewer locations accepting ASTM 6400 products now as they do not break down in the prescribed 180 days. In fact most compost facilities really want products to break down in 90 days if they are mulch producers. I am afraid the writer is a bit behind on some landfill biodegradable plastics. Oxy-degradables are the only ones I know leaving heavy metals behind and are not certified ASTM 5526. Landfill biodegradables are the perfect choice to a society that does not recycle plastic. The EPA says only about 12% is recycled. So having a product that will break down in a few years in a landfill rather than lasting hundreds of years is good answer until we can get people to recycle. As for the methane issue, more and more landfills are harvesting the methane and converting it into energy. It is cheaper than any other renewable energy out there. Ask BMW and Johnson & Johnson. They run part of their plants on methane. And please let us not forget that polyethylene and polypropylene are made from natural gas in the US, not petroleum. However, only 1.5% of all petroleum is made into plastics according to the US Energy Information Admin. So how about taking the term “biodegradability” and making it “landfill biodegradability”, and composting into “backyard compostabilty” or “commercial compostabilty”? As for oxy-degradables, just call them “degradables”. Their only true form of degradation is from high heat and sunlight, so they don’t fit the other definitions at all.
Interesting, eliminate biodegradability from sustainability conversations. One word with no meaning from a conversation about a word that also has no practical meaning.
Adam, great article. Love your point: "The problem with the B word? Its connotation that it's always a good thing and never a bad thing" Completely agree. When it comes to sustainability in packaging the answer is: It depends. Look at the big picture and understand the purpose of the product. Packaging Digest, thanks for the article. It would be great to have a twitter share bottom!
1. Loop closing, however defined, is a misleading feel-good goal. Numbers matter, and if a material is recycled in a way that replaces new material manufacture, AND without excess enviro-costs to do so (e.g., melting glass), that's what counts, not what product is made from it. 2. "Biobased" isn't always "good" either, nor is (even) "recyclable." I once challenged the ENVIRONMENTAL sanctity of recycling with real numbers, many people agreed, but the whole thing was soon forgotten, as we can't afford to buck popular image. 3. Not only is 'biodegradable" a misleading buzzword, so is "sustainable." It's defined as fuzzily as "love," which certainly means different things to different people. At least we could quantify sustainability if we tried hard, weighing all the factors (except those popular images, again). 4. Here is a recent post I put up on another blog: "Do we have the courage to talk about WHY the public is so primed to fear/resent/hate plastics, as seen in the "epidemic" of bag bans in the USA? It's not just lack of education, as you see by trying to 'educate" a committed plastophobe. They don't want to know. The fear of science takes away the comfort of magic (believing in the unprovable), and appears as fear of "man-made" substances, fear of chemical companies and big corporations in general, and guilt for throwing away too much instead of disciplining and even doing without. This is like childhood toilet training, where we learn to manage our wastes in a socially appropriate manner. Doing what you want, whenever you want, wherever, is not freedom, it's infancy."
I love this article and could not agree more. When someone says biodegradable to me, i just go oh know do I have to explain this again!