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Every year, thousands of New Yorkers gather on Randall’s Island in New York City between Manhattan and Queens for the two-day Governor’s Ball Music Festival. This year, a few lucky individuals, myself included, earned free day passes by volunteering to help with recycling efforts for the organization GrowNYC.

On the morning of the event, representatives of GrowNYC passed out t-shirts, water bottles, and face paint (It was a music festival, after all.), and the director of the effort conducted a brief training session. There were no surprises until the very end of the half-hour talk, when the speaker warned us to watch out for a specific brand of plastic cups emblazoned with green stripes being used by some of the food stands. These plastic cups, she explained, were not recyclable.

Instead, they were biodegradable.

In my uninformed mind, “biodegradable” was one of those green words that gets thrown around by companies to justify a higher price with claims of environmental consciousness. It’s like “organic” or “free trade” or “carbon neutral.” I would have guessed that these attributes normally complement rather than oppose one another, but it is not so in this case.

The biodegradability of an object refers to the rate at which it will decompose naturally. Virtually all processed goods are technically biodegradable, but so-called biodegradable plastics will supposedly undergo this process more quickly than others. Recyclable materials, on the other hand, are meant to be processed and converted into raw material that can be used to create more finished goods. In an ideal world, a biodegradable cup should decompose rapidly in a landfill, while a recyclable cup should be melted down to make more cups.

Unfortunately, these two approaches to minimizing the impact of trash on the environment are not interchangeable, and recycling officials hesitate to support biodegradables. For example, the Association of Oregon Recyclers maintains an official stance against certain kinds of biodegradable plastics, specifically those that use degradable additives in traditional petroleum-based plastics. They explain, “The principal concern is that a recycled resin containing degradable additives renders any ensuing recycled product, such as a bottle, pipe, or carpet, unsellable because the product has reduced quality and shortened service life.” In other words, the properties that help biodegradable plastics to break down can weaken the new goods created in the recycling process.

Other varieties of biodegradables rely on processed plant products, including polylactic acid, to form their plastics. These too need to be kept separate from the main recycling stream in order to avoid compromising the final product. That is why the Environmental Protection Agency is currently funding projects in places such as Santa Monica to help consumers to differentiate biodegradable plastics from traditional plastics and to dispose of them properly.

Tom Szaky, CEO of the recycling company TerraCycle, points out in a New York Times article that biodegradable plastic may be well suited for certain types of products that often cannot be recycled, such as disposable coffee cups. He adds, however, that even in these circumstances, special facilities that ensure proper oxygen flow to the biodegradable waste are necessary to ensure the best results. To allow for this, Americans need widespread industrial composting facilities, rather than backyard composting pits, with a reliable means of waste collection.

America generates 250 million tons of garbage every year and, in 2010, managed to recycle or compost only 34.1 percent of it. Environmental plights like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch testify to the unsustainable nature of this system. But, in this case, throwing all possible solutions at the wall to see what sticks will not work. If biodegradable plastics continue to grow in popularity without widespread public awareness of their limitations and proper disposal procedure, they are more likely to dampen recycling efforts than solve America’s waste problem.

Claremont McKenna College has yet to take on this issue, as its dining facilities currently do not use any biodegradable plastics. Instead, Bon Appetit General Manager Pam Franco explained that Collins dining hall uses “a compostable paper cup and to-go container and a plastic cutlery kit.” In addition, all 5C dining halls make use of reusable plastic to-go boxes.

I don’t know how many biodegradable cups made it into recycling bins during my shift at the Governor’s Ball. I like to think that I spotted and redirected most of them to the trash can, but I’m sure a few of the cups with the little green stripe made it past me. Even when I was able to stop passersby from making the same mistake I would have just hours before, many asked for an explanation before they believed me. In the future, we may develop the infrastructure to support robust biodegradable composting programs, but until that day comes, those biodegradable cups and bottles belong in the trash.

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  • The author sort of go this right but got confused on the technicalities. Biodegradable does not refer to a rate at which a product biodegrades. It just tells you if it can be broken down by biological organisms or not. There is no time factor involved.
    In the same sentence he got biodegradable and degradable confused. He was correct about the non recyclability of degradable products due to the possible compromise of the next product. Degradable is a chemical reaction and is on going all the time, whether the item is sitting on a shelf, on the ground. It needs oxygen to occur so if a degradable item is sent to a landfill the chemical reaction essentially stops and the item no longer breaks down. So you have to question the point of adding the degradable additive in it in the first place.
    What he did not distinguish between was compostable-biodegradable and landfill-biodegradable. His reference to the plastic cups with the green stripe belonging in the trash for now is correct. That is because these would have been made from a compostable plastic which can only biodegrade if the cup is disposed to a commercial compost facility where higher temperatures, moisture and a good oxygen flow are ensured. If the compostable plastic does not get those conditions, then it will not biodegrade either. Not in your backyard compost bin nor in a landfill. Since there are few to none commercial compost facilities around, the advertising of compostable biodegradation is really green washing at the moment as the author inferred. And yes compostable plastics cannot be recycled. So at the current time with no infra structure to support the collection of compostable plastics and transport to a commercial compost facility, they have to go to a landfill where they will not biodegrade.
    Landfill biodegradable plastics was what the author did not address. These are conventional plastics but with an organic additive in them that attracts microorganisms to digest the additive and the plastic molecules away. These additives are relatively new, only a few years old. A landfill biodegradable plastic will behave like a normal plastic till it is disposed to a landfill. It is not a chemical reaction, but a biological process that only starts once the plastic is in a landfill. A landfill biodegradable plastic has an indefinite shelf just like a conventional plastic. It can be recycled in mainstream plastics too as they do not affect the downstream product until they were to be disposed to a landfill. For more on this see http://www.plasticwastesolutions.com This is where we should be headed after we have done as much as we can to eliminate the manufacture of disposable plastic items. Those that are still necessary ought to be made with a landfill biodegradable additive in them. The 6% of plastic that gets recycled can still be safely done so, but the 94% of plastic that goes to a landfill will then biodegrade away.

  • Connor Barclay

    Great article, Adam! I’ve definitely made this mistake.