Down in the Dumps: Why “Biodegradable” is no answer

Tuscan Garbage Project

Biodegradable products sound like a good idea.

Throw them away but let nature’s own processes break them down gently and completely.

Seems environmentally-friendly.

Not so fast.

In fact, not fast at all.

The late Dr. William Rathje was an American archaeologist who became a world-leading garbage expert. His long-running Tucson Garbage Project investigated what people in that Arizona city were throwing away and what happened to it when it was laid to rest in the landfill site.

When Rathje and his students dug into landfills, they knew exactly how old a layer of garbage was because they could still read the newspapers that were resting in peace. They could tell what people were eating and throwing away decades earlier, because much of that food was still obvious – including carrots that were still orange.

Rathje’s work underlined what environmental professionals know first-hand. Biodegradable items in landfills don’t break down quickly, if at all. Every modern landfill site is specifically designed to keep air out and keep moisture at bay as much as possible. Without air or moisture, there aren’t going to be the microorganisms that do the hard work of turning that “partially biodegradable” coffee pod into something better.

A book that Rathje co-wrote points out that landfills “are not vast composters; rather, they are vast mummifiers.” Any breakdown can take centuries and the book tells a story about archaeologists who dug into an ancient Roman dump where they were repelled by smell of garbage still rotting away after 2,000 years.

Mummification is not the answer to the waste that people associate with single serve coffee. Composting is. PῧrPod100™ is certified to break down in municipal and industrial composting facilities in 84 days – and tests show it often converts back to dirt much faster than that.

Too bad for future researchers who won’t find compostable pods from our era but great news for today’s coffee lovers who want an eco-friendly choice.