Disposal methods – Which is the current least harmful to the environment?
We are inundated with the ubiquitous disposables especially foodware and packaging and because of their everlasting negative impact on our environment, suppliers, users and takeaways get questioned all the time about their sustainability. It’s a great question and there are no simple answers.
The various disposal methods include incineration, recycling and the landfill; and they all have their pros and cons. So which is the least harmful method to the environment given the current situation? The answer to this complex question lies not only in the type of disposal method but the type of waste.
Landfill is the second most used waste treatment in the UK, with 24.4% (52.3 million tonnes) of waste disposed of at landfill in 2016. The downside of landfills, if not properly regulated to expedite biodegradation and composting, is the production of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide from decomposing organic waste. More seriously, waste such as the infamous plastic and petroleum- packaging materials that do not decompose, can remain in the landfill for 100’s of years. They never fully biodegrade and persist as litter breaking up into pieces and find their way into our waterway and the ocean, harming marine and us too.
However, landfills have come a long way and are nowadays constructed and operated to stricter standards in order to reduce adverse health and environmental effects. A good/modern landfill site with a good soil lining and good leachate management systems may result in minimal negative environmental, social and economic impact for some types of waste compared to other waste management options.
The worries with landfills are that they are running out of capacity and recycling and waste-to-energy (incineration) are complementary to achieving lower landfill rates.
The UK already has more than 30 rubbish incinerators and there are plans to build more. For communities short on landfill space, “waste-to-energy” incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution. Waste that cannot be recycled, especially petroleum-based and plastic films that have a high calorific content and are in effect “freeze-dried fuel” can be burnt to generate electricity.
However, caution in building more plants lies in the predictions that there will be nothing for them to burn, as happened in the Netherlands and Germany. Furthermore, environmentalists sound alarms at the carbon emissions and release of greenhouse gases from the burning. No doubt state-of the art plants do filter out the toxins, but even the best plants do not filter out all toxics.
It is a matter of weighing burning against the worse of the two evils – plastics that do not currently biodegrade under any circumstances and lie festering in the landfill for years on. On the other hand, a Study done in 1995 found that recycling most material saves on the average three to five more energy than does burning them for electricity.
One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis as the nation’s landfills were running out of space. But because more and more materials types have been added to the recyclable list, the process has become more complex and expensive than expected.
The most common problem with recycling is that we do not really understand our waste! What is and is not recyclable! Furthermore recycling systems and labels are non standardised and difficult to understand. Recycling information is confusing and at times conflicting and hence incorrect recycling behaviour is common. If the recyclable waste does not get into the right bin, it ends up in the landfill!
The chief benefit of recycling is no doubt the reduction of carbon emissions and the greenhouse gases as we reduce the need to manufacture new products, hence less mining, drilling and logging. But, if recycling means high usage of energy and resources and hence a net environment cost, then it is only a partial solution. Furthermore, many of the products that we think are ‘recycled’ are actually ‘downcycled’. For example a plastic milk carton can never be recycled into another carton but made into a lower-quality item like plastic lumber; which can’t be recycled again! And each recycling process releases more CO2.
Whether disposing waste in landfills, burning it or recycling it, all disposal methods have their limitations and are but partial current solutions to sustainability.
Which is the least harmful to our planet?
- Costly incinerators that save less energy than recycling?
- Landfills waste that biodegrades, or plastic that remains in the environment?
- Plastic recyclables that might not be recycled or are ‘down-cycled’ and use more energy and resources or organic recycling with compostable and biodegradable waste?
How can foodware and packaging that is single use and contains an internal plastic lining possibly be considered eco-friendly? What do we do in the meantime?
The answer to this complex question lies not only in the type of disposal method but the type of waste we produce.
All attempts should of course be made to reduce waste, reuse and recycle. But the reality is that we will end up with some waste. Not all can be recycled and half of our waste ends up in the landfill. And of the waste that ends in the landfill, the least harmful waste is one that biodegrades.
Compostable and Biodegradable Packaging
Eco-friendly packaging is packaging that, over time, reduces its environmental footprint. A packaging that is not only made from renewable energy, but one that can be disposed off safely and effectively by being recycled into a harmless non-toxic humus by-product completely to provide resource for subsequent generations and not land in the landfill or ocean for years and years on. These are packaging made from plant-based materials, such as polyActide (or PLA) products made from corn or potato starch, bagasse products made from residual sugar cane fibre (a waste product of sugar production), etc.
One major benefit of using sustainable packaging made from renewable materials such as bio-plastics is that they help us wean ourselves off fossil fuel based plastics. In addition bio-plastics create 75% less carbon emissions than the conventional plastic. So even if bio-plastic does end up in landfill, less emissions have been created along the way. They do not leach BPA or other chemicals into the ground and ground water when they degrade. And, they will certainly break down a lot quicker than Polystyrene, and when they do, the end result will be what they were made from - plant matter.
Biodegradable packaging can be disposed of in landfills for speedy decomposition. Compostable packaging, especially bio-plastics need commercial composting facilities, as it requires a certain level of heat and moisture. And with increasing improvements in commercial composting opportunities, it is still definitely a better alternative than oil based plastics.
Element packaging offers a full range of eco-friendly food packaging that is home compostable, compostable and biodegradable and made from bagasse, cornstarch, paper, card, PLA, bamboo fibre and wood.
- The home compostable range has a unique plant starch lining that can degrade in 30 degrees Celcius, thus making it home compostable.
- The biodegradable range made cornstarch range can be dispose off like green waste into the landfill.
- The compostable range made from bagasse needs commercial composting facility. Element Packaging has partnered with First Mile UK which collects Element’s biobased, home compostable and compostable food packaging waste from individual end users, helps sort it out and sends it to the right waste stream for example a composting facility, incinerator or recycling plant.