You asked: Do I need to buy biodegradable materials if my waste only goes to landfill?
“You Asked” is a series in which Columbia Climate School experts answer readers’ questions about science and sustainability. Today, we’re talking trash Steven Cohendirector of the research program of Zemin Institute in the field of sustainability policy and management.
Cohen is an expert in sustainable cities, waste management and environmental policies. He helped us answer the following question from a reader:
Are there any environmental benefits to using biodegradable disposable plates and cutlery that are thrown out with the garbage in sealed plastic bags – and possibly landfilled?
Disposing of biodegradable materials
Biodegradable plates, cutlery and other materials are designed to break down through natural processes, so they can be broken down without leaving toxins in the ground.
Cohen says most waste in the past was biodegradable, but the plastic revolution changed that — for the worse. Our landfills are now full of materials that will never decompose. For example, if you throw your computer keyboard in the trash, it won’t go anywhere for a very, very long time.
“Therefore, any biodegradable material is better than non-biodegradable material,” he says.
Additionally, millions of tons of plastic waste find their way into the ocean, where it threatens ecosystems and marine life.
So, whether or not your biodegradable fork is sealed in a garbage bag, it’s much better than adding another piece of plastic to the problem.
An even better alternative is to use reusable cutlery instead of disposable items, but modern life doesn’t always give us that option.
The future of waste
The amount of waste on our planet is a real issue.
The population on our planet continues to grow – as does the amount of things we use (and the amount of waste we throw away), but the amount of the planet remains the same. Therefore, our landfills are becoming more compacted with waste. And the price of landfill real estate will only continue to rise—unless we get creative with our waste.
This is a big problem, says Cohen. In places like New York City, there is so little room for garbage that much of the waste has to be sent to places like Virginia and Mississippi.
The ideal future for our waste is to move away from the current model of extracting materials from the earth, producing products and creating waste. Instead, Cohen explains, we should move to a model called a “circular economy,” where waste is eliminated, resources are repurposed and recirculated, and more of nature is restored.
If landfills were set up to support this model, Cohen says, they would use artificial intelligence and automation to sort waste so materials could be repurposed and waste mined for natural resources. The task of separating waste containing toxic materials is too much — and time-consuming — for humans to handle, but technology may offer a great solution to these problems.
The system sorts products such as paper, wood, and plastic for reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling, and extracts natural materials that can be reused or returned to the earth. Like taking nitrogen from food waste and turning it into fertilizer for farms.
“We need to end the linear model of resource extraction, use and disposal,” says Cohen. This helps to close the production and consumption system.”
With eight billion people on the planet, he says, finding better ways to manage waste – and reuse it – will be key to developing environmentally sustainable cities.
The true value of biodegradable materials (and all individual climate actions)
Cohen says the purpose of using biodegradable materials is what really matters.
“The thought process is important,” he explains. “It makes you think about recycling, waste and the waste you produce. “All these technologies and ideas teach you about the planet, its limitations and your relationship with it.”
Using biodegradable materials shows that you value the planet and will probably make you think of other ways you can protect it.
And that’s what really matters – no matter what happens to your fork in the garbage.
Emily Hallnon is a freelance writer in Eugene, Oregon.