Quite often in our research on sustainability, we learn something that makes us sit-up.
We usually accept that it is awesome for a product to be bio-degradable and leave it at that. However when you pull at the thread of bio-degradability to follow it to the very end, you get a different picture.
So to begin, what is bio-degradability?
Bio-degradable matter is organic material with plant or animal origin. They can be broken down into simpler compounds by microorganisms (like bacteria) and they return to nature in a short period of time. For example wood & cotton are bio-degradable. Regular plastic is not.
The key phrase here is “return to nature”. That is, these bio-degradable materials can be re-used by nature to create new living organisms.
Human activity generates waste. Daily.
Waste falls in two categories. The solid waste, that goes straight into the dustbin. Then there is the liquid waste handled by the sewage system.
The solid waste goes from your dustbin to a dumping ground in the city called a “landfill”. Unless special, prior segregation is done, all types of waste get mixed up at the landfill. Plastic, food waste, paper, construction debris all become one massive pile at the landfill.
This means that bio-degradable waste anywhere below the top surface of the landfill has no access to light or oxygen. Unfortunately for bacteria to work their magic on most bio-degradable matter, they need light and oxygen.
This means that nothing happens to the bio-degradable matter at the landfill. The lack of light and oxygen will preserve them perfectly like mummies for eternity.
This is the crux of the post. Bio-degradability is potentially good. But it needs an effort to be converted to actual good.
A few numbers from our city
To further illustrate the point about bio-degradability, here are some numbers from the Chennai corporation
- Solid waste generated – 500 gm per person daily
- Total solid waste generated – 3200 tons daily
- Total area used as landfills – 550 acres in Chennai city (24 million square feet)
- Life expectancy of landfills – The year 2015
I was aghast that on average I am responsible for nearly 200 kg of solid waste per year. Also, 24 million square feet of perfectly good residential area are used as landfills. And in 4 years from now new landfills will be required.
At the highest level, the solutions to handle solid waste are to not create solid waste. This means
- Reduce consumption
- Reuse stuff. Like reusing plastic bags.
In our case we carry our own bags every time we go to the store.
Once solid waste is generated, the options are recycling and composting
Recycling is a terrific solution because it works at source, i.e. our home or office where the solid waste is generated to begin with. By recycling materials like paper, certain plastics we can prevent waste from entering the landfill in the first place.
For example, we recently bought office supplies that came in several corrugated cartons.
A few years ago I would have thrown them into the dustbin. Now these cartons will be sent for recycling just like old newspapers
Compost is the natural end point of bio-degradable matter. In other words after the biodegradable matter has been broken down by micro-organisms we get compost, which is a great soil fertilizer and the pillar of organic farming.
Plain vanilla composting is just burying food waste in the garden. A year later the local earthworms and micro-organisms will convert it to compost.
Home composting is a massive step to help reduce the city’s load on solid waste management and reduces the need to create new landfills. More on that later.
To conclude, bio-degradable is good, and with some waste management effort it becomes great.