Hey Mr. Green,
I think that your column’s recent stance on biodegradable cups is all wrong. Not only is compostability important, but being nontoxic in our municipal landfills and incinerators is a real plus. If you knew about the island of plastic that is floating around in the Pacific then you might have reasoned that if we used bioplastics instead of Styrofoam and other plastic disposables, it wouldn't be there threatening marine life and everything else daily.
Of course people should use reusable containers but in the modern world that is not always an option. Give some credit to technological developments that try to bring about greener alternatives to the worst petroleum-based environmental offenders.
--Stephen in York, Pennsylvania
"Biodegradable" has acquired such solemn meaning that you now hear the word uttered with prayerful reverence. But look, just because something's biodegradable doesn't make it entirely virtuous. Charlie Manson is biodegradable, Richard Nixon is biodegrading, and Nero and Caligula and Attila the Hun have no doubt biodegraded to the point to which some of their molecules could be zipping around in the organic coffee that just fueled this overwrought sentence.
I did not actually take a pro or con stance on biodegradable plastics. Rather, I expressed skepticism about whether they are as environmentally benign as some folks believe. I'd like to be convinced that they don't use more energy or cause more pollution than other plastics, but I haven't seen the evidence.
Some types of biodegradables may generate higher net levels of greenhouse-gas emissions, atmospheric acidification, and eutrophification, while some may reduce it. But even the researchers who find reductions in emissions because of the use of these materials have cautioned that other problems may arise. In fact, some studies show that biodegradables don't even biodegrade unless placed in commercial composting systems. So people blithely chucking out biodegradables believing that it's OK might be harming wildlife. Adding to the question’s complexity is the reality that there are different kinds of biodegradables, making it even more difficult to reach a conclusion.Regarding landfills, they are actually designed to prevent material from breaking down in them, so neither kind of plastic can claim moral superiority once it's interred.
I have two other compelling reasons for skepticism about giving "credit to technological developments.” One is expressed in the old axiom: "Reduce, reuse, and recycle." It's always best to attempt to reduce first, for obvious reasons. Touting biodegradability as a miracle solution can distract us from what is by far the most effective measure, which is to reduce use. To our great peril, we continue to ignore the basic principles of conservation of resources, partly because of our distracting infatuation with technological fixes. In other words, don't wait until you can afford solar panels to turn out the bleepin' lights.
Secondly, I'm old enough to remember when pesticides and nuclear power and all manner of synthetic materials were touted as wondrous instruments of progress. While the relentless march of time is in most respects a fairly miserable experience, it does reinforce a healthy skepticism known as the precautionary principle. The irony of the word "plastics," as whispered to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, is much more compelling than it was 40-odd years ago.