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Mind & Matter

 

The Dark Side of Biodegradability

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The rush to manufacture products with more environmentally friendly disposal methods has revealed an important problem: biodegradable materials may actually be more harmful than helpful in landfills, due to their release of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—as they decompose. According to Morton Barlaz, the co-author of a study at North Carolina State University, “biodegradable materials, such as disposable cups and utensils, are broken down in landfills by microorganisms that then produce methane. Methane can be a valuable energy source when captured, but is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere.”

Although Federal Trade Commission guidelines emphasize rapid decomposition, Barlaz and his team argue for a slower rate of breakdown. More importantly, the use of methane-capture technology that transforms the gas into energy—currently present at only 35 percent of landfills—should be increased. “If we want to maximize the environmental benefit of biodegradable products in landfills,” Barlaz says, “we need to both expand methane collection at landfills and design these products to degrade more slowly – in contrast to FTC guidance.”

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.