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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New Wave Of Compostable Products Creates Recycling Conundrum

There’s a new wave of plastic bottles, utensils and plates on the market that appear to be better for the environment than traditional products, made from petroleum-based plastic. These plates, cutlery and bottles are made from plants, like corn, potatoes and sugar cane, and they’re supposed to be composted.

But what happens if they end up in recycling bins, trash cans or aren’t properly composted? In some cases, they could cause environmental problems of their own.

Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Here & Now’s Robin Young that in most cases, compostable products need to be sent to an industrial composting facility, which have higher temperatures and different breakdown conditions than you have in backyard composting bins.

“If it’s not going to go to a composting facility, then you might be better off using plastic cutlery made from plastic products,” Kershkowitz said.

That’s because if the products don’t end up being composted, could have other consequences.

Concerns Over Methane Gas

Hershkowitz said that most compostable products inevitably land in landfills, where they will begin to break apart. The problem is, they shouldn’t.

“In a landfill, you don’t want things to biodegrade, because when things degrade in a landfill in an oxygen-starved environment, which is typical of landfills, it causes the release of methane gases,” Hershkowitz said. “Methane is a greenhouse gas, 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

If those products end up in your recycling bin, Hershkowitz warns that they will end up contaminating and disrupting the plastics recycling stream.

Plastic Made From Plant Waste

Hershkowitz says a better option is a new form of plastic, which is made from plant waste, instead of petroleum.

Pepsi announced earlier this year that it has already developed this technology. In March, the company announced its plant-based bottle, which is made from things like pine bark and corn husks. Pepsi says that the bottle has an identical molecular structure to traditional plastic bottles. Hershkowitz said that is an important breakthrough.

“The recyclying of the plant-based bottles does not contaminate or disrupt the petroleum-based recycling infrastructure, which dominates the plastics recycling market right now,” Hershkowitz said.

Pepsi will begin testing a few hundred thousand of the bottles starting next year. So in the meantime, what’s a consumer to do?

Hershkowitz said the best option is to use products made from recyclable materials.

“Recycled content eliminates the need for both petroleum-based plastics and for bio-based plastics,” he said. “So you want to buy plastic products made with the highest amount of recycled content you can find, and you want that bottle to end up in a recycling bin.”

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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