Increased demand for products with reduced environmental impact has resulted in growing confusion about what is “green” and what offers “real environmental value”. Much of the confusion and misconception centers on biodegradability and landfills. It seems an obvious conclusion that if an object is natural, such as a fresh cut floral arrangement, then it is biodegradable. This is accurate only if it is composted and allowed to react with air, water, and microorganisms that break it into components that are again made available to the biosphere, much in the same way a fallen tree in a forest decomposes and completes its life cycle.
Because modern landfills are so extremely compacted, natural, or organic, “trash” biodegrades anaerobically (without oxygen). But, the fact is, it might not break down at all. In a frequently cited, and still relevant, 1971 study, “The Garbage Project”, from the University of Arizona, researchers uncovered 25 year old hot dogs, corncobs and grapes from a landfill. Click to the book, Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy.
When organic “trash” does break down anaerobically, one of the by-products is methane. In 2009, landfills were responsible for 17% of the methane emissions in the U.S. Methane is 21 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Click to the U.S. EPA website on Climate Change and select the link to the “Executive Summary”, a 27 page pdf report. Many municipalities now collect yard waste separately for community composts to prevent the formation of methane, as well as to preserve critical landfill space needed for other types of municipal waste.
It requires, at the very least, 364 weekly purchases of perishable fresh cut flowers and greenery during the 7 year-plus lifespan of a single silk flower arrangement. The amount of methane emitted and landfill space consumed by discarded fresh cut flowers and plants over the 7 years period is disconcerting to say the least.
Bottom Line: If fresh botanicals are not properly degraded by composting, they have greater undesirable effects in landfills than silk flowers and plants, due to their production of harmful methane and their use of landfill space. Eventually, silk botanicals will take up landfill space, just as old clothing or furniture does, but they are biostable, or inert, and will not produce methane.
See our Carbon Footprint Blog “Silk Flowers -The Greener Choice” posted March 21, 2012.