The United States produces 250 million tons of garbage every year, according to the EPA. Twelve percent of landfills, which are close to capacity in most cities, are composed of plastics that will take hundreds of years to break down.
On top of that, many plastics contain the synthetic hormone, Bisphenol A, or BPA, which mimics estrogen and has been linked to miscarriages, birth defects, obesity and insulin-resistance.
It's no wonder that consumers are looking for alternatives. In fact, according to a report published by Reporter Link, demand for biodegradable products in the United States is expected to increase to nearly 16 percent by 2012, which is valued at $845 million in sales.
As a result, companies are responding with biodegradable products made from chemicals or organic materials that decompose naturally in months or even weeks. Not only is it a great selling point, but also promoting biodegradable products can be good for a manufacturer’s bottom line.
"Biodegradable plastics will reduce our reliance on foreign oil, lower our carbon footprint, and could eventually be cheaper than traditional plastics from increasingly expensive and dwindling oil," said Brian Mooney, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who conducts research on biodegradable plastics made from plants.
Biodegradable materials used in industry come in all forms, but among them are plastics derived from the starches of plants like cornstarch and pea starch.
These so-called bioplastics take less time to degrade in landfills because they are made of organic materials that posses the ability to decompose.
Bio-plastics are one of the main items used to create these eco-friendly technologies. Companies like Ilium Studios in Paris, France, created a line of gadgets in 2010 using biodegradable materials. They created calculators, radios and other devices using bio-plastics made from corn and bamboo trim to allow them to break down into the soil once they are disposed of.
Besides bio-plastics, some companies are utilizing local lumberyards and creating technology with wood pulp. Companies like Microprobe Computers Ltd. in Dublin, Ireland, and Fujitsu in Tokyo, Japan, are two companies utilizing this resource.
The world's first biodegradable computer, the iameco, debuted in Dublin Ireland in 2008. The iameco had a frame made from wood pulp. Its wood panels contained seeds so that when the computer was thrown into a landfill and decomposed, it would eventually sprout new trees. Besides being biodegradable, the iameco also used one-third less energy than conventional computers of the time.
Fujitsu used this same idea to introduce the KBPC PX ECO keyboard and the M440 ECO mouse in 2011. Both are made from Arboform, a by-product of the paper-making process called lignin, and Biograde, a compostable cellulose acetate.
Fujitsu reports that using the plant-derived materials reduces carbon dioxide emissions during manufacturing and keeps about 132,000 pounds of plastic out of landfills per year.
Being biodegradable may also mean that the products can be multi-faceted. Asus, based in Taiwan, has decided to ship their motherboards in a reusable case. Made from cardboard, the shipping box can be transformed into that a case later on.
Computers and peripherals are not the only products looking to jump into the biodegradable market; clothing and accessories are also making a name for themselves. The Geneva, Switzerland-based company Altanus started selling a paper watch in October 2010. The watch, called the Patch, features a band made of paper and an LED screen, made of a very thin glass, which is biodegradable.
OAT Shoes, based in Amsterdam, have created a compostable sneaker using hemp, cork and organic cotton, which is grown without the use of toxic and persistent non-bio-degradable chemical-synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
The sneakers also feature seeds inside the tongues, so that when the shoes wear out, they can be buried in soil to grow plants. The shoes will be available to European buyers online in the near future.
But not all biodegradable items are beneficial to the environment, says Kristin Riott, the Interim Executive Director of an environmental group out of Kansas City, Missouri.
"In general, disposable products of any kind are more damaging to the environment than using, for example, reusable ceramic dishes and glassware," said Riott. Furthermore, the products used to create certain biodegradable materials may actually be dangerous to the environment.
"If a biodegradable product is made of corn, for example, its possible that the environmental damages of raising corn, which is very water and pesticides intensive, as well as hard on the soil, outweighs the benefits of biodegradability."
And currently, bio-plastics and other compostable materials for industry are still in their infancy and more expensive than plastic made from oil, says Mooney. However, Mooney’s research and others like him hope to make these items more common and accessible, which should bring the price down.
The technology sector is looking to make less of an impact on the environment when their products are thrown into the landfills. Various creators and inventors are looking toward being eco-friendly in order to appeal to an expected growth in consumers’ demand for such products.