Evan Matzen, Manager, Sustainability

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ecently, there have been a number of news articles and discussions about whether biodegradable and compostable products really are better for the environment. Composting is an oxygen-intensive process involving aerobic digestion that converts organic matter, such as grass clippings and food waste, into rich soil to be used in gardens, parks, and anywhere you want to grow plants. The byproducts of aerobic digestion are heat, carbon dioxide, and ammonium. However, a landfill is an oxygen-depleted environment, meaning that any decomposition that occurs in a landfill is from anaerobic digestion, which generates methane. According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) methane gas has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (meaning one ton of methane prevents the same amount of infrared radiation from escaping the atmosphere as 21 tons of carbon dioxide). The amount of global warming gases released by composting is much lower than the amount released through anaerobic digestion.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) methane gas has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (meaning one ton of methane prevents the same amount of infrared radiation from escaping the atmosphere as 21 tons of carbon dioxide).

A lot of landfills in the US capture methane and either burn it or use it to generate power. However, a recent study in “Environmental Science & Technology” explains that landfills only capture methane once they are closed and sealed. What this means is that if you throw biodegradable products such as food and yard waste, and compostable cups and plates, into a landfill, methane will be produced before a system is put in place to capture and destroy it.
So what does this mean to you? When choosing environmentally preferable products, you need to think about how those products are going to be used AND disposed of. As the study indicates, the environmental benefits of compostable products are not reaped when those products are not composted. Fortunately, knowing what to do is relatively simple:

If your municipality or waste disposal company has an industrial composting program, like Rapid City, South Dakota, then you absolutely should be composting and using compostable materials. For example: if you ordinarily use plastic plates at your hotel breakfast area, use compostable plates instead and dispose them, along with the leftover food, in your compost. Even better: use reusable flatware.

If industrial composting isn’t readily available, you should consider using products made with recycled content instead of compostable products. Remember – using recycled products increases the demand for recycling and generating products from recycled content. The more recycling that occurs, the less waste goes to the landfill.

As an example: if your municipality collects grass clippings for composting, you should use compostable bags to collect those clippings. If your municipality does not compost, you should use plastic trash liners with the highest amount of recycled content you can find.

Remember: the best thing you can do for the environment with your waste is not generate any. The second best thing is to make sure you recycle and compost everything you can.

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