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The Myths of Biodegradable Waste

Oh yes, "biodegradable waste" is a huge fallacy for most homes. And although it seems like everything is marked "biodegradable" anymore, even styrofoam derived from corn, we're far from being in the clear by opting for it over other options. Especially since because they CAN decompose doesn't mean they will.

First, what does biodegradable mean? It simply means a product will break down over time with the help of microbes, oxygen, sunlight, and water, and return back to the natural resources from which it came. Anything nature-made will do this (given enough time), but man-made objects are usually put through a process that renders them incapable of breaking down, making them non-biodegradable and the stuff archeologist will be digging up and using to define us centuries from now. (That's gotta make you wonder what they'll think of us when they start digging up our trash!)

It's tempting to think anything biodegradable is sustainable or green. It's usually not. When it comes to shampoos, soaps, or cleaners, it's certainly helpful to ensure you're not using chemicals that will hang out in the environment for centuries. But there are several myths and dangers to biodegradable products that are important to look at below.

For Starters, They Won't Biodegrade at Home

You may have tried to throw a "compostable" or biodegradable cup in your own compost pile, only to find it there a year later? Um, yeah. You may have even tried to chop it into little pieces to see if that helped the process along.

It doesn't. We tried. And years later, with all methods of home composting, we still found little bits of plastic in our garden. I don't care how "natural" the manufacturers claim it to be, it's not Nature's design to take that long to break should-be-natural resources down.

So, what does biodegradable mean if these products won't break down in the home compost pile? It means they must be broken down by high-heat industrial methods, something that, in the long-term, isn't exactly sustainable. Massive amounts of new waste come about from transporting biodegradable waste from your home to the local composting facility (if you even have one in your area, and it's willing and capable of breaking down corn-based plastics), the high heat burns up needed components in otherwise healthy soil, and it still takes months to break this stuff down.

But most biodegradable waste doesn't end up in a compost pile (about 70% of compostable or recyclable waste gets thrown "away"). It ends up at the landfill, and that's a real problem.

Wait, won't it just biodegrade in the landfill?

Simple answer: Nope.

In order for anything biodegradable to break down you need some pretty key components: microbial activity, water, sunlight, and oxygen.

However, a landfill is tightly packed and covered to prevent those very things (otherwise we might end up with a toxic soup on our hands), and so things simply don't degrade.

In fact, according to a modern archeologist, William Rathje, you can still read the newspapers and name the foods that have been in landfills for 50+ years.

That means all those organic foods you've been buying and throwing away? Still recognizable years later. That's just weird.

Rathje knew this because he dug up landfills around the US for decades before passing away in 2012, as a way to examine our culture by the most honest means possible: what we use up and throw "away".

What does biodegradable mean in this context? Rathje remarks in the video below, "Food debris and yard waste, about 50% of it will biodegrade in the first 15 years, and then it stabilizes." Meaning that even the most biodegradable waste is not going anywhere.

(Can't you just see a dystopian future deprived of new materials and where we're digging up landfills in search of good resources we've wasted?)

Fifteen years for something that should take as little as 15 days in the right conditions! And that's the easy-to-biodegrade stuff. Not the plastic and styrofoam waste.

So, when someone says it will "break down in time", it's important to ask, "How much time? And in what conditions?"

Given the proper conditions, paper should break down in 2-4 weeks. But given landfill conditions, those newspapers in the video above where dates from the 1960's or earlier, and where hanging steady - you could even read them. Something like a banana peel usually takes about 2-4 weeks in a home composting pile, but in a landfill it may never fully decompose.

And those biodegradable plastic cups or styrofoam trays? In a landfill, they last just as long as their conventional counterparts; that is to say hundreds, maybe even thousands of years (that we can see so far).

A Better Alternative to Biodegradable Waste

Ideally, the best alternative to biodegradable waste is to stop creating waste in the first place. It's not that hard. Here are some ideas:

Let's honor the work of Rathje and Nature by taking these important baby steps toward a zero-waste home.

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