The UK national daily newspaper The Guardian made a splash over the weekend with a story headlined: 'Sustainable' bio-plastic can damage the environment: Corn-based material emits climate change gas in landfill and adds to food crisis.
Concern is mounting because the new generation of biodegradable plastics ends up on landfill sites, where they degrade without oxygen, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This week the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration reported a sharp increase in global methane emissions last year. "It is just not possible to capture all the methane from landfill sites," said Michael Warhurt, resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "A significant percentage leaks to the atmosphere." "Just because it's biodegradable does not mean it's good. If it goes to landfill it breaks down to methane. Only a percentage is captured," said Peter Skelton of Wrap, the UK government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme. "In theory bioplastics are good. But in practice there are lots of barriers." Recycling companies said they would have to invest in expensive new equipment to extract bioplastic from waste for recycling. "If we could identify them the only option would be to landfill them," said one recycler who asked to remain anonymous. "They are not wanted by UK recycling companies or local authorities who refuse to handle them. Councils are saying they do not want plastics near food collection. If these biodegradable [products] get into the recycling stream they contaminate it.Our sister publications in Europe, Plastics & Rubber Weekly and European Plastics News, noted today that The Guardian's report didn't really break new ground. "This and the other issues covered about bioplastics, recycling and oxy-degradables have all been covered over the past few years by PRW and EPN," online editor Katie Coyne wrote. "These include concerns over contamination by bioplastic into oil-based plastics recycling streams." So far coverage of bioplastics in the United States has been largely uncriticial. It will be interesting to see if the popular press here picks up on The Guardian's lead. (One notable exception came up on April 16, with this curious story, "Questioning how Biota sprung a leak," from the Telluride, Colo., Daily Planet, which quoted two former employees of a Colorado bottler who alleged that water containers blow molded by a now-defunct company company using corn-based plastic leaked on store shelves.)