Tag Archives: are biodegradable plastics good

The New Plastics Economy’s “Global Commitment” defies commonsense

The “root cause” solution to plastic pollution is in making sure plastics work in today’s managed-waste systems. It seems too simplistic an answer considering the enormity of this problem. But when it’s all said and done, plastics (petroleum or plant based) must work in our managed systems, especially the one that primarily collects plastic waste – period. This is the only path to a full life-cycle and systems approach for profoundly better economic and environmental outcomes.

Plastics are created from energy and, through our managed systems, plastics should ultimately be recovered as clean energy, closing the loop and ensuring plastics never become “waste”. Energy growth is directly linked to well-being and prosperity across the globe. For developing nations, this need is fundamental to improving and even saving lives. Energy is the building block for creating plastics and ensuring Energy’s recovery at the end-of-life is essential in eliminating pollution and achieving Circularity.

Which brings me to the New Plastics Economy’s “Global Commitment” pledge which states, “The Foundation believes the use of anaerobic digestion is currently limited for plastic packaging as at the date of publication,” to justify the focus on Compostability as the only acceptable end-of-life solution, but only for “specific” and “targeted” applications. Otherwise, it’s Recycle or die! The myopic pledge even doubled-down declaring that plastics-to-energy is not part of the circular economy target state! A stance that is radically shortsighted and naïve considering the scope of this crisis and the current state of Recycling.

But what strikes me as incredibly odd is that out of the dozens of experts, the broad stakeholder review process involving 100 organizations and experts across businesses, governments, NGO’s, academics and standard-setting organizations, you’re telling me that nobody noticed that this statement is completely ass-backwards?!?

The vast majority of plastic packaging is commonly and customarily discarded in facilities that are large-scale Anaerobic digestors (a.k.a. modern landfills) Limited? Not true, nearly 90% of U.S. Municipal Solid Waste (especially plastic packaging, because that’s what it is – not organic waste) is sent to anaerobic waste systems (practice and scale) – BTW, 0% to Industrial Composting facilities! These anaerobically managed MSW facilities are actively collecting and turning waste into fuel for vehicles, heat for homes and providing power to industries. They are highly regulated and strictly managed, and no other waste-management system collects more discarded plastics – none!

We have a pollution crisis and to get any tangible grip on this problem plastics must work in the systems that are available to us today. Strategies and pledges based on contingencies and “further innovation” only stagnate our abilities to act now. Recycling will never be a solution to pollution. We have systems in place and technologies available to make meaningful strides today, based on data, science and certainty that eliminate pollution with return value, not just continuing to “fight against” it with sentiment and no substance.

Energy recovery must be included in strategy and design, it is the alpha and omega. From where it comes, it must return. Negating this principle in the management of plastics is blasphemous to the fundamental principles of “Circularity” and only serves to continue down a linear path that solves nothing.

What percentage of methane is collected in landfills?

I recently came across an article by James Levis called Collecting landfill gas good step. This article is a reaction to a paper that Levis co-wrote with Dr. Morton Barlaz titled “Is biodegradability a Desirable Attribute for Discarded Slid Waste? Perspectives from a National Landfill Greenhouse Gas Inventory Model.” That very paper started the jumping off point for the sudden out spurt of biodegradable plastic methane emissions articles all over the web this summer.

Spinoff headlines ranging from  “Study: Biodegradable plastics can release methane” to the reckless “Biodegradable products are often worse for the planet” were at the forefront of attention.

I had reacted to such articles in a previous blog which you can read here but after reading Levis Collecting landfill gas good step article, I came across some statistics that I just had to share!

greenhouse gas emissions methane

Levis stated in the article “ The foundation of this research is a life-cycle accounting of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with discarding waste in both national-average and sate of the art landfills”    Now here is some interesting information,

An estimated..

35% of waste is discarded in state of the art landfills which collect generated methane and use it in beneficial ways

31% of waste is left in landfills without any gas collection occurring

34% of the waste is in landfills that collect and flare the gas


The results of the research showed that there are significant benefits to collecting and beneficially using landfill gas. Levis addressed reactions to the research, one of the most common comments being “these materials are intended to be composted, therefore the results are irrelevant.” Levis reacted to the response by stating, “But these materials are generally not composted, and most areas of the country do not have the infrastructure for source-separated compostable collection and treatment of these emerging biodegradable materials. Therefore we need to understand the effect of their disposal in a landfill.”

Another common response to the research included that the conclusions were too broad, that they neglected emerging materials like bioplastics that do not appreciably degrade in landfills. Levis responded by stating that the argument seems misguided because these types of materials are not even technically biodegradable and the study’s only mention of bio-based, non biodegradable products was to say that it would lead to green house gas emissions in a landfill.  Levis closed the article by stressing the importance of analyzing the entire life cycle of a product to know if it is better to use a conventional or biodegradable material in the production, as well as environmental and economic factors, before making your final judgment.