Sunday, July 4, 2010

Biodegradable materials are sitting in landfills, and that sucks.

Only two posts in and already there's a recurring theme in my blog: when people don't buy reusable water bottles and travel mugs, they often justify their consumption by proclaiming that plastic bottles are recyclable and (some) paper cups are biodegradable. "I'm doing my part", they say while complimenting the local corporate coffee house for bringing in those new recycling stations (don't get me wrong, I'm glad they've taken that step). We need to work harder at educating each other about what works and what doesn't when it comes to waste diversion initiatives, and make sure certain issues are being properly addressed.

Let's think about those fancy new biodegradable paper and plastic cups that can be found popping up at the office, often for catered meetings. My first concern is that the shiny green "biodegradable" label may only suggest that some fraction of the material can break down (which also makes me wonder if they used vegetable-based ink?), or worse yet, that the item could take centuries to decompose. I'd rather not even consider the possibility that some products marketed as biodegradable could break down only to release harmful toxins. As far as I know, there is no official definition for the term, no standards for making a biodegradable claim, and no regulatory body to separate the good from the bad and the ugly.

Another issue with these feel-good cups is what happens to them after the water and coffee has been consumed and the meeting is over. Off the top of your head, how many compost bins have you spotted scattered around your office building? I'm willing to bet the number is smaller than one for most of you. I'm also willing to bet that a lot of people out there think this is a non-issue, ignorant of the fact that the fate of a biodegradable cup is not so glorious when mixed with plain old garbage. Trash is compacted so tightly that biodegradation, if it occurs at all, takes place very slowly because of the anaerobic conditions of the landfill it ends up on. Add to that a relative lack of light and water in the middle of the heap, and a definite lack of the microorganisms that actually perform the biodegrading magic, and what we're left with is lettuce from the 1960's that has not decomposed. Ew.

The alternative? Bring biodegradable items home for municipal curbside green bin pick-up, which, unfortunately, is not without its share of problems. This program was designed with two important facts in mind: (1) people are prone to laziness, and (2) people can be easily motivated by money. I happen to believe in the universal application of these tenets - because I'm often one of those people! There are lots of communities where residents now have to pay if they set out too many garbage bags for collection (threat of losing money), which encourages waste diversion actions like separating compostables from inert trash. So, in the absence of a burning desire to get dirty in the backyard with a garden compost bin and so many possible uses for healthy soil (threat of physical activity - let's face it, we all like getting sweaty at the gym and only at the gym), people happily fill their little curbside green bins. Out of sight, out of mind, as is so often the case. Let's pretend there haven't been issues with organics sent to landfills because they were held in non-biodegradable plastic bags and simply because workers have been mixing them with regular trash.

But once again I'm letting my cynicism get the better of me. Every new program, green or otherwise, is implemented with lots of kinks that need to be ironed out, and eventually they will be. In the meantime, talk to your employer about setting up a composting program at work, or approach your condo board about getting in on the municipal organics collection program. If you're really keen, show up at the management office of your local mall and demand that they commit to setting up green bins alongside the recycling bins in the food court.


As for me, in September I look forward to moving out of my overpriced high-rise apartment and into a walk-up with a friendlier landlord in a quieter neighbourhood. There are many reasons for making this change, including the prospect of setting up a composter on the property and encouraging my new neighbours to help me turn vegetable scraps - and the occasional biodegradable cup - into rich soil. Next summer, get ready for backyard tomatoes!

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