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Wednesday, 22 January 2003

Idea - Certified Biodegradable

I'm not just procrastinating or anything...

So almost everything that exists today will one day be garbage. Some of these things are recyclable. Most are not. Pizza boxes, for example are made out of wood pulp (perhaps recycled). Ordinarily, you would expect this to be recyclabale, but it is not, since the food oils are not compatible with recycling. But the pizza box is still biodegradable.

We like to be happy about biodegradable products. They can go into a landfill and not sit there for the next 10K years in their current form. Instead they go to a landfill, biodegrade and get contaminated with stuff that's dangerous for 10K years and are not reclaimable as fertilizer, dirt or topsoil. This is better (slightly), but it's not good. Pizza boxes contain nutrients that are useful and could be reclaimed as good compost. Throwing that away is wasteful.

Instead, we could set up a large municipal composter. This could be a large drum that rotates and is titled at a five degree angle. The insides of it contain sharp protrusions, to break things apart. Warm water (think recleaimed water here) is misted onto this thing. Trash goes in. One week later, dirt comes out. There's a plan for how these things should work in one of my organic farming books.

The problem is, of course, not all trash is biodegradable. Composting all trash before landfilling it might reduce the volume of stuff going into the landfill, but it's a waste of what could have been good compost. Instead, users could sort out biodegradable trash much the same way they now sort out recyclables. However, it's hard to tell what is biodegradable. My shampoo bottle says "biodegradable" and "recyclable" on it. It's clear they intend to say the the plastic is recycable. But does the biodegradable marking refer to the shampoo within the bottle or the bottle itself? Also, if the bottle is recyclable, this is an unusual situation, because normally plastic is not. Clearly consumer education will not be enough for users to sort biodegradable items from non biodegradable items.

Many people are proposing that manufacturers pay for disposing their products. Thus the disposal costs would be factored into the cost of the product and the packaging instead of being a hidden cost at the end and a burden to all tax payers rather than the individuals who purchased the product and all the packaging. This is a good idea, but biodegradable material would still be lost to the sanitary landfill for generations. The solution then is for certain products and especially certain pieces of packaging to be certified as biodegradable. Companies who met certification would have a reduced disposal fee for those items. In exchange, the product or packaging in question would be free of non biodegradable ingredients. If your plastic bottle biodegrades, but your ink is toxic, the compost resulting from it would be unsuitable and hence your whole product would fail certification.

There is no reason for a shampoo bottle to live decades longer than the shampoo it contained. This proposal is a step on the path to sustainability. Under the current capitalistic system, it may work better than an outirght ban on stupid packaging. It gives corporations incentives to fix their problems and to develop new methods for creating intelligent biodegradable packaging. It also gives consumers incentive to pick biodegradable products, since the discounted disposal fee will lead to cheaper prices.

Corporations may try to duck out of this by claiming that plastic is recyclable. Therefore, the disposal fee for non-biodegradable objects should consider what percentage of plastic actually gets recycled and what percentage of actually recycled plastic is re-used as packaging. In other words, if only 20% of plastic bottles are saved from the landfill through recycling, corporations would still have to pay 80% of the disposal fee. This fee would further be increased because plastic bottles do not become bottles again, so virgin material is required for every bottle produced. Manufacturers using glass bottles would pay a much lower fee, since most glass is recycled and it can be turned into glass bottles over and over again indefinitely. Manufacturers using recylable, biodegradable plastic would pay the same fee percentage as normal plastic producers, but they would pay that percentage of the lower biodegradable fee, rather than the sanitary landfill fee.

The compost resulting from tis scheme (once tested to make sure toxins didn't sneak in) could be used in parks, schools and farms. The use of this compost would add nutrients to the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertalizers, thus leading to healthier plants, healthier food and ultimately healthier people. And less stuff in the landfills. What more could you want?

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