Tuesday, 6 April 2010

New Scientist falls for a bogeyman

In my book Ecologic I describe the concept of an ecological bogeyman. This is either something that sounds scary but isn't, or that sounds good but doesn't deliver. It's something where words fool us into thinking something is better or worse than it really is. A classic example is the way advertisers use the word 'natural', which instantly generates warm, cuddly feelings, even though in practice nature is rarely warm or cuddly.

A bogeyman that regularly looms up is the word 'biodegradable.' It sounds good and green, so it must be good for the planet, right? And the parent company of New Scientist magazine have fallen right into its trap. The Feedback section of the latest issue explains that New Scientist is wrapped in a biodegradable form of plastic. This will apparently 'degrade when subject to environmental conditions to produce water, carbon dioxide and biomass.' The biomass will probably then degrade further giving off methane.

So now, please remind me, why we want this wrapper to turn into greenhouse gasses, rather than lock them away for hundreds of years? Biodegradable plastics belong to an older generation of ecology when we were more worried about having enough holes in the ground than about climate change. Get your act together, New Scientist.


  1. Yes, methane is a green house gas….but is methane all that bad? How about captured methane which in a landfill is known as landfill gases (LFG’s)…is that bad? LFG’s can and are being captured to produce energy. Seems to me that using our trash to produce energy might be a good thing. By the way, the federal government mandates that all landfills capture LFG’s. There are better designed landfills known as “Bioreactor Landfills” which promote biodegradation. Bioreactor landfills are more efficient at capturing LFG’s. An added benefit to a bioreactor is that the life of a landfill is 20-30 percent longer than a normal dry-tomb landfill. There are no perfect answers for fixing our problems but doing nothing isn’t a viable answer either.
    “Bottles for a Healthier Earth”

  2. Methane isn't just a greenhouse gas, it's 23 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 - and the fact is that it isn't being captured in the vast majority of landfills. But as it happens, the primary emission in this case is carbon dioxide, which I don't think even you can use!

    I usually delete comments that are blatent adverts, but I'll let you get away with it because I'm all in favour of captured LFGs.