By Richard Romano on April 10th, 2012
Tom Szaky, blogger for Packaging Digest, has a good post over at the New York Times, which he follows up on his PD blog, about the distinction between biodegradable plastic and plastic recycling. Which is “better”? Starting over at the Times:
When you look at any object it is important to look at both how it is made and how it is disposed of. With biodegradable objects, it is disposal that is the problem. Something made from biodegradable plastic will not decompose thoroughly in a landfill, because oxygen is required for such material to decompose properly and landfills have very poor oxygen flow. That means that throwing the biodegradable cup into the trash is basically as bad as throwing a normal plastic cup in the trash.
You also shouldn’t throw that cup into a recycling bin because it is still not recyclable and will in fact harm the quality of the plastic made from recyclable material like soda bottles.
The trouble with home composting is that the average backyard compost heap doesn’t get hot enough to biodegrade plastics like polylactic acid (PLA). So what is to be done with it? As Szaky says, some cities have collection centers that have the capability to compost such products effectively. Ay, there’s the rub:
It took lots of energy to turn soil and plant into biodegradable plastic. When that plastic is composted back into soil, all of that energy is effectively wasted. The most efficient use of the energy would be to make the plastic and keep it as plastic as long as possible.
Like many ostensible solutions, biodegradable plastic “feels right,” even if it might not necessarily be.
The story continues over at Packaging Digest:
Recycling still takes energy, which composting does not, but solely composting limits the end-of-life value of a product too much to give it precedence over recycling–especially when composting of biodegradable plastic still isn’t available on a large scale. Also, making a new product requires energy anyway, so the output of energy to recycle a product would be matched by that of a new product regardless.
Ultimately, recycling vs. biodegrading is not an either/or situation, and both options have their advantages and disadvantages. Decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis. Choose wisely!
What I personally prefer is to try to choose products carefully so it’s not a decision I have to make. Sure, it’s not always possible, but one tries. Take cups (please!). My gym has a bar at which they sell recovery shakes, served in large Styrofoam cups. At first, I would buy one shake then repeatedly rinse out the cup and reuse it from day to day, until it became structurally unsound and it oozed all over me as I walked home. The solution? They will gladly use a container of my own, such as a sturdier bottle (like a water bottle). I am also not above bringing my metal travel mug into a Starbucks and let them figure out if it’s a venti or whatever.