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Breaking down biodegradability and incineration

Biodegradable cup

Part of the problem with landfill waste is that it takes up so much space. Waste solutions such as biodegradable plastic and incineration that are seemingly safe for the environment and make our “trash” disappear appear to be a great option. An item made of biodegradable plastic, or PLA (polylactic acid) is appealing because you can throw it away and it will (supposedly) disintegrate and disappear back to where it came from. Incineration whisks away our trash with a puff of smoke.

The problem is that biodegradable plastics often don’t go anywhere, and incineration causes just as much harm, if not more, than the plastic would in a landfill. If you throw your biodegradable iced tea cup into the trash, it will be carried to landfill. However, it needs oxygen in order to decompose, and high enough temperatures, which it won’t get in the landfill because there is no circulation in a pile of trash that large. Your cup will live in the landfill just as long as an ordinary plastic cup would.

If you try to compost that cup at home, like the 5 percent of Americans who compost, it’s going to be tough. That same heat and intense oxygen flow needed to break it down won’t be readily available in a home compost pile either. Municipal compost is available in incredibly limited quantities; for example, San Francisco offers it, but New York and many other major cities and regions do not.

If your plastic iced-tea cup goes to the incinerator, the burning plastic will release gases, ashes and toxic waste into the air, which is incredibly harmful to our lungs and can contribute to smog. According to Zero Waste America, incinerators merely “convert waste into hazardous emissions”, and are one of the main contributors to the load of dioxins in our air.

If incinerators release this incredible amount of harmful waste into our air, it can’t be a better option than a landfill. If biodegradable plastic doesn’t break down easily in landfills or in home compost piles, and municipal compost isn’t widely available, the biodegradable plastics can’t be as “friendly” to the environment as we imagine them to be.

On top of the truth that biodegradable plastics and incineration methods that make our waste “disappear” don’t end up being environmentally-friendly at all, we also need to think about the entire life cycle of a piece of plastic, whether it be an iced tea cup, a butter tub, or a chip bag. We pull resources from our Earth, expose the Earth to the byproducts of this manufacturing, all for something that is used for minutes, or a few days at most.

When we simply put the item back into the Earth, or burn it, all of the energy and output that went into that product are essentially wasted and worthless. In order to make this energy use more worthwhile, the plastic needs to have as long of a life as possible, which means reusing or recycling the plastic as much as possible before throwing it aside.

The solution to the problem lies in two places. First, we must think about the way that we are creating plastics. They must be made so that they can be reused, and so they are not as harmful when put back into the Earth. Following that, companies - any kind of waste disposal company - must move towards being able to collect and process biodegradable materials properly, so that municipal compost and biodegradable disposal that truly work are available on a large scale and people can actually take advantage of the biodegradability feature. We could also consider if incineration of any plastic will ever not release dangerous gasses into the air.

TerraCycle itself has been working to team up with companies that offer biodegradable plastic so that it can be processed properly. Being an eco-friendly company means that we need to think and investigate every “eco” option before we support it and before we offer it ourselves as a waste solution. If we want to offer our customers and clients the ultimate green options, we have to offer consider whether these disposal methods and plastics truly are beneficial for the environment. And here’s my bottom line: we want to solve for every waste stream, and that means helping find a compost solution for biodegradable plastics - and also learning how it can be reused and recycled first. On top of that, incineration should never be an option as long as plastics release dioxins and hazardous fumes.

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