Compostable products create recycling conundrum

Here and Now

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Bottles, utensils, bags and other items typically made from petroleum-based plastics can now be formed by bioplastics which are made from plants like corn, potatoes and sugar cane. While they may seem more friendly to the environment, there is often confusion about whether these bioplastics should be recycled or composted. 

If a bioplastic product that is supposed to be composted is recycled, it will end up in a landfill and biodegrade. “In a landfill, you don’t want things to biodegrade,” says atural Resources Defense Council Senior Scientist Allen Hershkowiz. “Because when things degrade in an oxygen-starved environment, which is typical of landfills, it causes the release of methane gases. Methane is a greenhouse gas, 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

Other problems posed are the agricultural implications of the new plant-made plastics. In order to make these products, crops are often grown specifically to turn into plastics. Hershkowiz sees this as a counter intuitive method and pushes for these plastics to be made using the waste caused by current agricultural production. “When you use existing agricultural land to convert them [crops] into plastics or even bio fuels, you actually instigate higher levels of green house gas emissions, which are counter to the sustainability direction that you’re trying to move toward,” he said.

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