By Donella Meadows
–February 23, 1989–
Lo, the wonder-makers of modern science now bring you biodegradable plastics! Are your roadsides littered, your beaches cluttered, your wild creatures strangled, your dumps filled up with the previous wonders of modern science, namely non-biodegradable plastics? Don’t worry about a thing, folks.
Look, we just throw a little UV-sensitive copolymer into the polystyrene. Or we mix 4 percent starch into the polyethylene, so the bugs can eat it. Shazam! Go ahead and throw your burger-boxes out the car window. Toss those garbage bags right off the back of your boat. In six months they’ll disappear!
Pardon my sarcasm, but sometimes the inventiveness of modern industry astonishes me, not only with its technical brilliance, but with its social cynicism. The purpose of biodegradable plastics is to keep us buying plastics. The primary environmental concern that motivates industry to devise them is to reduce environmental concern, so that we don’t have to think about changing our multi-billion dollar, plastic-addicted, wastrel ways.
There are two kinds of “degradable” plastic, biodegradable and photodegradable. The biodegradable kind mixes the long plastic molecules, which nothing in nature can digest, with starch, which micro-organisms will happily munch away. On the side of the road a bottle or bag made of this material will slowly fall into small pieces of immortal, non-biodegradable plastic. After some months you won’t find a bottle or bag there, only inert and relatively harmless plastic sand.
In a landfill, however, this biodegradation will proceed slowly, if at all, because nothing degrades well in a landfill.
If you know anything about compost heaps, you know that the breakdown process requires a healthy ecosystem of micro-organisms, plus air circulation, plus water, plus a good balance of the nutrients the degrading bugs like to eat. A landfill contains none of those things. Bill Rathje, an anthropologist from the University of Arizona, drills core samples down into old landfills. He finds intact food, paper, cloth, twenty years old. He can date it exactly, because the newspapers are still readable. If newspapers don’t degrade in a landfill, fancy plastics won’t either.
Photodegradable plastics are even more clever and even less of a solution to the solid waste problem. They have built right into their long molecular chains specially designed links that fall apart when hit by the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. The breakdown products are shorter chains of plastic, not so much plastic sand as plastic powder. Again, it seems to be inert and harmless, and it will be with us forever.
Of course there’s no sunlight in a landfill either. People in the plastics industry admit that neither kind of degradable plastic can extend the lives of landfills. It can only help with the problem of litter. They admit that only when pushed, however. They know it’s mostly concern about landfills, not litter, that propels legislation requiring the use of their product in state after state.
Biodegradable plastic is a better idea than the indestructible stuff we use by the ton now. I’d be happy to see the plastic on the roadsides and beaches fall apart.
But better yet would be to use less plastic in the first place, especially for packaging. which has no utility for consumers. A tax on packaging high enough to pay its full disposal cost would help. Better would be to recycle the plastic we do use. Better would be to solve a social problem like littering socially, instead of technically. We could enforce anti-litter laws and accord litterers the scorn we now direct toward smokers, instead of designing molecules that do away with the ugly evidence of our inability to discipline ourselves and each other.
Degradable plastic is just one example of ingenious technical solutions to problems that would be better solved by social re-thinking. The pesticide industry, threatened by discoveries of its noxious chemicals in groundwater, is coming out with pesticides encased in starch pellets — less likely, we are told, to be carried into waterbodies. This product allows us to maintain our nuke-your-irritant (and all nearby innocents) mentality. It diverts our attention from understanding predator-pest-crop balances and more elegant, natural means of pest control. It keeps up pesticide sales.
The nuclear industry is working on “safer” power plants, designed to be technically invulnerable to operator error or sabotage. If such plants are possible, they will assuage public concern about immediate safety, do nothing about long-term nuclear wastes, and, here’s the point, keep the industry in business.
Then there’s SDI, the technical fix that makes it unnecessary for us to make peace in the world, even when our enemies want to make peace — and that keeps the billions flowing to the military contractors.
Was there ever a society in human history so arrogant about its technical skills and so unempowered in its social skills? We think we can blast incoming missiles out of the sky, but we don’t think we can stop people from littering. We attempt to master the bonding of copolymers or the neutron flux in a power plant, but we will not contemplate mastering ourselves. We hand off our responsibilities to companies whose interest is in selling us products, not in solving our social or environmental problems.
There are cheap, effective, environmentally sound ways to reduce and recycle our garbage flows. Biodegradable plastic is not one of them. Becoming adult about our generation and disposal of waste is.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989