There continues to be intense interest among many readers in biodegradable plastics. A case in point: a story that we posted on June 1, "Biodegradable products in landfills may be harmful" was the third-most-accessed story on PlasticsNews.com in June. The story, from our colleagues at Waste & Recycling News, said that biodegradable products such as some disposable cups and utensils may be doing more harm than good in landfills, because they release a powerful greenhouse gas as they break down. Since there was so much interest, I want to make sure that readers notice that we've published a Perspective column from one of the authors of the study that prompted the first story. The column, headlined "Collecting landfill gas good step," is by James Levis, a researcher and doctoral student at North Carolina State University. Levis notes that he is aware that his report, "Is Biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Solid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model," had generated news headlines. In some cases, he said, writers have drawn improper conclusions from the report. For example, writers who he identified as anti-environmentalists "have tried to use the results to portray environmentalists and environmentalism as naive and/or misguided. This argument is nonsensical when made by those who deny anthropogenic climate change. This research is meaningless if one does not first accept basic climate science. The purpose of the research is to allow us to more effectively mitigate GHG emissions by making informed decisions." What the study does suggest is that landfill operators should be much more aggressive about collecting methane from landfills. In addition, it suggests that "increasing composting infrastructure could also be beneficial if additional life-cycle research shows benefits from composting these materials instead of landfilling." I know this won't be the final word on the merits of degradable plastics. But it should help to put the North Carolina State research into the proper perspective.
A final word on the NC State study on degradables in landfills
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