COMPOSTABLE & BIODEGRADABLE IN THE CITY? THINK AGAIN.
Finally the world is starting to wake up. Well maybe in the global metropolises of the world such as London. On a regular basis, I see more and more City professionals wandering around with their ‘keep cups‘ and most large outlets offer a discount for bringing them. Some would say it is now ‘fashionable’. For example, Pret-a-Manger offers a 50 pence discount for the use of a re-usable cup. On top of this is the rise of ‘Compostable’ & ‘Biodegradable’ coffee cups and cutlery.
Let us take a closer look at what each of these terms really mean.
A ‘biodegradable‘ product has the ability to break down by biological means, into the raw materials of nature and disappear into the environment. In addition, this should happen relatively quickly and safely. When we refer to ‘biodegradable plastic’, it means that it is intended to break down when the product is exposed to microorganisms. In these cases, cornstarch, vegetable oil or another natural product is often added to the product to achieve biodegradability.
As part of the earth’s life cycle, the sustainable disposal of any thing or product means that its waste returns to the earth and is broken down into its basic building blocks. At this point, new living things are produced. It’s an endless cycle that we see at the moment in the northern hemisphere with the falling of the autumn leaves: The leaves are initially produced in spring to assist in photosynthesis in the summer, whereupon they drop to the ground in the autumn and return to the soil, nourishing the plant or tree for the following season.
However, with many of the products that we call ‘biodegradable’, the very essence of producing these man-made products means that they are not recognisable to the microorganisms and enzymes that break them down.
To this extent, the labelling of plastics as ‘biodegradable’, means that they are often not. Have a look for yourself next time: your biodegradable cutlery is hard, shiny and designed to withstand the force required to eat food safely and easily. Do they look like something that can be easily broken down?
The question then becomes: what is the inherent biodegradability of the material? Anything in its ‘natural’ form will easily degrade so long as it is still in its relatively natural form (ie any plant-based, animal based or a natural mineral based product). On the other hand, any products that are man-made and derived from petrochemical compounds generally do not.
So, when something is man-made and formulated in a laboratory, the very combinations required to make it are not present in nature and therefore there are no corresponding microorganisms present to break them down.
The next question is how long does it take for the material to actually break down? Things in nature have different levels of biodegradability: a leaf will biodegrade within a year whereas a large tree may take decades. What then to make of the biodegradability of your ‘plastic-like’ knife and fork? How long is a piece of string perhaps? Furthermore, what by-products will those items cause as they biodegrade with the resulting toxins that are released into the environment?
In addition, many products that are inherently biodegradable in soil, such as food wastes and paper, lack biodegradability when placed into landfills. This is because this environment lacks the water, natural light and bacterial activity necessary for the whole decay process to commence.
In short then, when we see products labelled as ‘biodegradable’, you can see it is a clever marketing tool. At the end of the day, it’s all still waste.
Let’s then take the ‘compostable‘ cup. Brilliant on the one hand, however on the other, those very compostable cups aren’t ending in a ‘compost’ heap, but rather in our rubbish bins. Off to landfill, or to be incinerated. Worse still, as with any other organic matter, as it degrades, it gives off methane (a potent greenhouse gas).
So quite frankly, the ‘compostable’ cup in the City is misleading. Most City slickers will just happily ‘dispose’ of their cup in the rubbish bin thinking they are doing their part in saving the environment, when they are doing anything but. How many offices have a compost heap hanging around their desks? Pretty much none, I suspect.
In addition, their very production requires resources to produce them. Inevitably this requires the clearing of land and the consequent degradation of soils and the natural environment.
Simply replacing plastics with biodegradable, compostable versions only reinforces a ‘single use’ culture that thrives on convenience and selfish short-termism, rather than a holistic, balanced view of the fragile ecosystem that is the Earth, our home. It reinforces the ‘recycling culture’ rather than placing emphasis on the 1st priority for waste management – reducing the amount of waste produced in the first place.
To that extent, compostable, biodegradable food dispensaries are not the long-term solution. We need to ‘re-use’ items, rather than disposing them as if they were ‘single use’.
Whilst biodegradable, compostable cups may make you ‘feel’ better, unfortunately you are being deluded. Rather, the better choice is to politely refuse and bring your own. In doing so, you are playing your small part in trying to make the world a better place. Isn’t that a noble cause worth aspiring to?