It's practically an environmentalist axiom that landfills deserve condemnation. They're ugly and smell terrible. No one wants to live near them. But why exactly is it such a huge problem for our waste to collect in designated disposal areas? Decomposition is the primary culprit.
When landfill waste decomposes, the garbage releases toxic leachate into the ground and greenhouse gases into the air. When food waste enters a landfill full of other items like paper, metal and plastic, it lacks the oxygen to decompose naturally. Instead, it decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen), resulting in the release of enormous amounts of methane.
Regulations on newer landfills require that they install methane-capture systems, which municipal landfills can sell to reduce their operating costs. But two-thirds of landfills still allow the gas to seep into the atmosphere. As a result, landfill emissions alone account for more than 3 percent of global warming, nearly as much as deforestation and fugitive emissions from industrial activities.
Composting, which is gaining popularity across the country, involves churning organic waste such as uneaten food into nutrient-rich soil. In landfills, composting separates biodegradable waste from nonbiodegradable waste. But it's always not the magic solution that people think. Corporations that promote their newfound environmental consciousness might actually be doing more harm than good.
Companies throughout the United States such as Starbucks and McDonald's have hopped onto the compostables bandwagon by replacing traditional plastic cups, plates and utensils with biodegradable alternatives.
The problem is that compostables only have environmental value when they're actually composted. But that rarely occurs. Ninety-seven percent of food waste still winds up in a landfill, and the vast majority of compostable food-consumption materials almost certainly face the same fate. Because they're designed to decompose, compostables that end up in landfills wind up breaking down anaerobically. Which means they add to the production of harmful methane gas.
Despite all the fanfare about replacing traditional plastics with compostable materials, the sad truth is that plastics produce no negative environmental impact as long as they are contained inside a landfill. Plastic doesn't decompose, so it produces no methane or toxic leachate. It does, however, contribute heavily to the pollution of waterways and oceans.
Compostables aren't necessarily a solution to address pollution in marine environments, because they don't always decompose as advertised. Some evidence suggests that when items are labeled "biodegradable," people are more like to litter. Well-intentioned compostable products can wind up harming the environment as much as plastics in the ocean.
Humans have spent centuries developing the bad consumption habits that created the modern environmental crisis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch hopes more companies will follow the lead of Starbucks and McDonald's in reducing their use of plastics. But no one should be fooled into believing that these are anything more than baby steps in the long march toward a solution.
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