What happens to compostable bags in landfill?
In recent years, the push for greener alternatives to traditional plastic products has gained significant momentum. One such alternative that has garnered attention is compostable bags. These bags are often lauded for their ability to break down naturally and reduce the environmental impact associated with conventional plastic bags. However, there is some debate about what actually happens to compostable bags once they end up in a landfill.
Compostable bags are made from various organic materials, such as plant-based polymers derived from corn or potatoes. Unlike traditional plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to decompose, compostable bags are designed to break down within a few months under specific conditions. These bags are typically labeled as "compostable," implying that they can be broken down in commercial composting facilities.
Landfills, on the other hand, are not designed for rapid decomposition. They are engineered to isolate and contain waste, preventing environmental contamination. The conditions in landfills, such as lack of oxygen, sunlight, and moisture, inhibit biodegradation. Therefore, when compostable bags end up in landfills, their ability to break down as intended is severely hindered.
When a compostable bag is discarded in a landfill, it becomes entombed in a sea of waste, devoid of the necessary elements for decomposition. Without adequate access to oxygen, microorganisms, and the proper environment, the bag may not decompose for years or even decades. In fact, studies have shown that compostable bags can persist in landfills for a similar duration to conventional plastic bags.
Moreover, the degradation process in landfills is significantly different from that in composting facilities. While composting facilities encourage the breakdown of organic materials through controlled conditions, landfills aim to minimize environmental impact and slow down decomposition. As a result, even if a compostable bag were to decompose in a landfill, it would likely release methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas with a substantial environmental impact.
The presence of compostable bags in landfills can also have unintended consequences. When compostable bags mix with other waste materials, they can contaminate the recycling process. Since compostable bags resemble regular plastic bags, they can easily be mistaken for recyclable materials and end up in recycling streams. Due to their different material composition, compostable bags can damage recycling equipment or create additional sorting challenges, making recycling less efficient and more costly.
It is essential to note that landfill-destined compostable bags are not entirely futile. Some argue that these bags still conserve resources and emit fewer greenhouse gases during their manufacturing compared to traditional plastic bags. Additionally, if certain landfill conditions were to change, such as increased oxygen availability or reduced compaction, compostable bags could potentially degrade faster.
To ensure the best environmental outcome, it is crucial to divert compostable bags from landfills and direct them towards proper composting facilities. In commercial composting facilities, which maintain specific conditions of oxygen, moisture, and temperature, compostable bags can successfully break down within a few months. The resulting compost can then be used to enrich soil, closing the loop in a more sustainable manner.
However, the availability of commercial composting facilities is limited, especially in certain regions or communities. This lack of infrastructure presents a significant challenge to the proper disposal of compostable bags. As a result, a considerable portion of these bags is likely to end up in landfills, diminishing their ecological benefits and contributing to the overall waste problem.
In conclusion, while compostable bags are designed to break down naturally, their fate in landfills is far from ideal. The conditions within landfills hinder their decomposition, potentially leading to long persistence and the production of methane gas. Their presence in landfills can also disrupt the recycling process, causing additional challenges and costs. Therefore, it is crucial to develop comprehensive waste management systems that prioritize the diversion of compostable bags to dedicated composting facilities. Additionally, promoting more sustainable alternatives, such as reusable bags, can help reduce the overall reliance on single-use plastics and mitigate the negative environmental impact of any type of bag in landfills.