July 24, 2019

What Does Biodegradable Actually Mean?

Rai Cornell

Biodegradable. Well... it sounds like a nice tidy adjective for something that naturally ("bio-") breaks down ("-degradable"), right? Well, actually, the term "biodegradable" isn't as simple as that. In fact, there are several factors that affect how biodegradable something is and how quickly it will actually go through the process.

PrettyLitter What Does Biodegradable Actually Mean?

A recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology showed that biodegradable shopping bags that were buried for three years could still hold up to five pounds of groceries, which raises concerns about the rate of decomposition of these products.

If some degradable products don't decompose in three years, do they ever truly biodegrade? At what point does "biodegradable" go from being a useful quality that can protect the planet to becoming a far off promise that has no positive impact on the present state of waste volume?

Here's what you need to know about biodegradable goods, the misconceptions about them, and ways to dispose of, reuse, or replace them altogether.

What Are Biodegradable Products?

By defining exactly what biodegradable products are, we can get a better idea of how and why we should or shouldn't use these goods.

Biodegradable products are items that can be broken down by microorganisms like bacteria. According to a study published by the Royal Society, microorganisms decompose biodegradable materials into "carbon dioxide, methane, water, inorganic compounds, or biomass."

In other words, microorganisms break down biodegradable products into the natural elements that can be used by plants and animals in nature. For example, water and carbon dioxide can reintegrate into the environment much better than, say, an entire plastic bag.

Misconceptions About Biodegradability

Even if a product is biodegradable, it doesn't mean it will disintegrate in any environment or under any conditions. In fact, there are several misconceptions that lead consumers to think that biodegradable products are a sure-fire way to protect the planet when really they may only be a small part of the solution.

Biodegradable Products Can't Degrade in Any Environment

According to a factsheet published by InnProBio, the Forum for Bio-Based Innovation in Public Procurement, "Degradation is dependent on factors such as temperature, time and the presence of bacteria and fungi in the specific environment."

Therefore, consumers must make sure that biodegradable products are disposed of in the right conditions. For example, a United Nations report about biodegradable plastics and marine litter indicates that biodegradable shopping bags may only degrade at a reasonable pace in an industrial composter – which is not exactly something everyone has lying around.

Composting is one of the most popular and effective ways to dispose of biodegradable goods. The process involves recycling degradable material, from human waste to degradable plastics, by burying it in your garden and planting over the material.

However, industrial composting can often degrade products much faster than you can in your garden at home and can do so on a much larger scale. Towns that provide places to dispose of compost often use entire facilities to properly dispose of the community's biodegradable waste.

If the plastic bags mentioned in the Environmental Science & Technology study were disposed of in this way, they probably would have degraded much faster. However, many consumers don't know this is a condition of something being biodegradable.

The Degradation Process Isn't Always Quick

Even if biodegradable items are disposed of in ideal conditions, they are not likely to decompose quickly.

Biodegradable products are a valid alternative to their less degradable equivalents in many situations, but the degradation process can often take well over a year, even in ideal conditions.

Unfortunately, biodegradable products are often touted as being harmless to the environment. Yet, the truth is that these products can pile up significantly over the course of a year or more.

However, in the grand scheme of things, a biodegradable item will still decompose much quicker than non-degradable materials and can help the planet in the long run.

Not All Natural Materials Are Biodegradable

Another common misconception is that if something is made of natural materials, it must be biodegradable. However, not all bio-based materials are degradable and not all biodegradable items are made from materials from plants or animals, according to InnProBio.

Rather, the treatment processes that many bio-based products go through can protect the item from biodegradation, thereby rendering it not biodegradable.

PrettyLitter What Does Biodegradable Actually Mean?

Alternatives to Biodegradable Products

Biodegradable goods still benefit the environment more than less degradable alternatives, but there may be some alternatives that are more sustainable in the long run.

An Environmental Science and Technology study highlighted in National Geographic states that “a bag that can and is reused many times presents a better alternative to degradability.”

Therefore, you can do more good by reusing products whenever possible as opposed to using biodegradable products once and throwing them out. Reusing goods like shopping bags, cups, water bottles, and straws benefits the environment regardless of whether or not they are biodegradable.

Biodegradable items are still useful, as long as we apply the right conditions to let them work their magic correctly. To help items degrade, dispose of biodegradable materials in your town's compost bins or practice composting in your own garden. Degradable material is often filled with nutrients that can help your plants grow, so composting can improve your garden while helping the environment.

If you you don't have access to composting, focusing on recyclable alternatives is a great way to contribute.

Do you practice composting? Or do you prefer to reuse and recycle? Tell us about your earth-friendly lifestyle tips in the comments below or share them with us on Twitter.

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