Biodegradable confusion is downright degrading

What you see here is a biodegradable plastic bag – undergoing a real life, real time experimental study – right here in my downright, nearly scientific compost bin. I’m really interested to see firsthand how well these things actually do break down. If you’re as intrigued by this as I am, come back to check its progress as I’ll be monitoring this little guy’s degradation progress over the coming months. This is actually an “air pillow” TheNaturalStore.com uses to ship our orders with – as an alternative to Styrofoam peanuts. So of course I want it to be true to its word …and it says right here on the bag that it should decompose between 6 months and 6 years. (Hmmmmm. How curious are you?) So then we’ll see if I feel as good about putting it into the garden as I do the coffee grounds, corncobs and other organic matter it’s snuggling up with.

There are so many products out now that claim to be biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable, and sometimes “all of the above.” It’s easy to feel confused, dare I say, mislead?? I have this inherent belief that most folks don’t realize that just because something says it’s biodegradable, doesn’t mean it naturally will become “one with the universe” (decompose) because – I hate to break it to you – it actually may not. Not if you throw it in the trash. You see, it all depends. Some biodegradable products are water-soluble, some degrade in the sun (not much sun in the landfill).  A well-known potato chip alternative claims to use biodegradable bags. Sounds great, right?  But I just heard, sadly, their now famous bag actually biodegrades in such high temperatures it takes an industrial composter to do the job, and there are only eight in the nation. So you see, it turns out landfills are anaerobic, specifically designed to prevent decomposing. That way they stay cleaner. That way, when the alien archeologists are sorting through our landfill sites millenniums from now, the landfill contents, theoretically, will look much like they do today. Ugh.

So do you see the potential for confusion? We’re all buying compostable picnic supplies, plastic bags, or lattés in proudly compostable cups – which all sounds good – until you realize the only way any of these will actually decompose is if we put them in water, sun, or with other microorganisms – and how on earth do you know which is which? Which is best? And which is in your landfill?

I’ve decided to go on a quest to clear it up – as best I can. (Hence the experiment). I’ll talk to a few folks in the industry and get back to you. So stay tuned, and until we know more, my advice is to pay attention:

  • Know your own community’s solid waste and recycling capabilities.
    • Ask for recycling, yard waste or composting
  • Read product labels carefully and follow instructions, putting:
    • things that compost in the compost
    • things to recycle in the recycling
    • plain old trash in the trash (Hopefully as little of that as possible)
  • Still best to avoid disposables whenever you can, bring your own commuter cup, your own refillable water bottle, etc. Get creative – even if it means washing an extra dish now and then. 
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