Questions about Biodegradable and Compostable:

Q: What does it 'biodegradable' mean?

'Biodegradable' simply means that a product will break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment.

Q: What does 'compostable' mean?

'Compostable' products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit: when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants. These products are commonly made out of renewable resources such as corn, bagasse (sugarcane fiber) or vegetable starch. These products degrade within several months in an industrial composting facility and produce no toxic residues. It is environmentally-preferable to use disposable products that are labeled 'compostable' rather than just 'biodegradable'.

Q: Why do we need biodegradable and compostable products?

There are lots of serious environmental and health concern associated with polystyrene and the danger associated with Styrene (which is also called Styroform), the basic building block of polystyrene. Styrene is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics. Consumers, environmental agencies, government are looking to find alternatives of Sterene; and ready to switch to biodegradable and compostable products due to the following reasons.

Please see the following facts that based on published research:

Environmental Impact (EPA):

  • The UN Environmental Program estimates that over a million seabirds, as well as more than 100 thousand marine mammals, die every year from ingesting plastic debris.
  • Plastic has a base of oil or natural gas and does not biodegrade in a landfill. You can find plastic waste at the beach, on the ground in the forest and floating in the ocean.
  • As of 2010, at least 14 countries have banned, or are considering banning, the use of the plastic shopping bags, including Holland, Kenya and Taiwan. San Francisco and Oakland, in California, ban the use of these bags in specific stores
  • The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year.
  • Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
  • Once Styrofoam, for example, breaks down, the tiny polystyrene components start to sink, because they're heavier than water, Moore said. "So it's likely that this styrene pollutant is prevalent throughout the water column and not just at the surface."
  • The City of San Francisco determined that it costs 17 cents for them to handle each discarded bag.
  • A EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste.ยท The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.
  • The use of hydrocarbons in polystyrene foam manufacture releases the hydrocarbons into the air at ground level; there, combined with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, they form tropospheric ozone -- a serious air pollutant at ground level. According to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) more than 100 million Americans currently live in areas that fail to meet air quality standards for ozone.
  • These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.

Serious Health Concerns:

  • Acute health effects are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
  • Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems.
  • Polystyrene foam is often dumped into the environment as litter. This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.
  • styrene used in Styrofoam were labeled as possible carcinogens in a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Q: Why are recyclable products not the best green solution to fix all issues?

Recyclable products can be collected and reprocessed to produce new items. Common recyclable materials are: paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum, and electronic waste. Recycling is very important in diverting waste from landfills and Undoubtedly, recycled products are very good for our environment. Recylced products are focused on where they are coming from vs. biodegradable products are focused on where they are going after use. Recycled products very popular because they truly affect the waste stream by using scrap materials. However, if they are thrown in a landfill the product will not truly degrade under landfill conditions. According to EPA, only 9% products are recycled. So, that shows that biodegradable/ compostable products are equally or more important than recycled products because without using these products we will not be able to address all environmental and human health issues in long run.

Q: Why should we use sustainable paper products vs. wood based paper products?

Most paper disposable paper products are made from virgin wood fiber, which are made from wood. It takes 20 years to grow trees so wood fiber is not a renewable/sustainable resource while fiber product such as bagasse (bioproduct of sugarcane) is a renewable/sustainable resource. It takes only 9 months to grow sugarcane plants.