60-Second Earth

Are Biodegradeable Plastics Doing More Harm Than Good?

Depends on whether one worries about climate change or persistent plastics in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. David Biello reports

[Audio clip from The Graduate: One word, plastics.]  Two words: biodegradable plastics. For years now, they've been a buzz phrase in the chemicals industry. After all, nobody likes those plastic bags flitting on tree tops or floating in the ocean, essentially forever.

But a new analysis shows that biodegradable plastics, particularly those that break down fast, are contributing to climate change. Because when disposable utensils made from the plastic called PHBO get to landfills, microbes break them down and make methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The research appears in Environmental Science & Technology.

Some landfills have installed systems to capture that methane and make use of it. After all, methane is perhaps better known as natural gas—a fuel used for everything from home heating to electricity generation. But most landfills don't capture the methane. So the potent greenhouse gas finds its way into the atmosphere, trapping the sun's heat to warm global temperatures.

In essence, the analysis is less a call to shift away from biodegradable plastic and more an appeal to take all factors into account when judging the relative environmental merits of a product. In other words, look at the entire life cyle. Because haste literally makes waste.

—David Biello

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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