What does biodegradable mean exactly?

Biodegradable means the material can decompose with the presence of bacteria and other organisms living in the soil, which gives it the ability to return to nature, leaving no toxins.

By the time it’s broken down there should be nothing left but water and carbon dioxide leaving trees with the food they need.

Sounds good right? Well, it might not be as good  as everyone thinks, so, what do the effects of these materials mean for our planet? And does it cause more harm than good?

Read on, and I’ll share everything I know.

Is Biodegradable Good For The Environment?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question, and there seems to be some confusion when it comes down to it.

Many biodegradable materials are completely harmless to the environment, such as:

  • Plant-based materials
  • Human and animal waste
  • The bi-products of dead animals
  • Food Waste

The confusion occurs when it comes to biodegradable plastics, and there seems to be a serious lack of understanding around the subject. That’s why I’m going to concentrate on biodegradable plastic.

Let’s get started:

Firstly, biodegradable plastics are made using petroleum-based products.

On top of this, they involve using many harmful chemicals. If we look at the very definition of biodegradable in terms of leaving no toxins, we can start to see some contradiction.

biodegradable cup

Another thing to consider is how long these plastics take to break down. In the wrong conditions, they can take up to five years but usually take a lot longer to decompose fully.

This might not seem bad, but when you compare it to how long it takes food waste to biodegrade, it really isn’t good at all.

I’d also like to mention how these plastics are made. Due to them being a petroleum-based product, the emissions that are created to produce the product aren’t doing us any favors.

The only advantage so far is that it’s more sustainable than traditional plastics, such as plastic bags.

What Qualifies As Biodegradable?

We mentioned earlier that biodegradable products must breakdown and return to nature within one year. And, this is completely true when it comes to most natural materials such as food waste, which has no problem breaking down.

To be biodegradable, whether it be a natural or man-made product needs to break down from exposure to oxygen and light (although heat and moisture can speed up the process).

Having the ability to biodegrade in landfills is also a requirement the product must meet to classed as biodegradable.

This is where we find more contradictions…

It’s not always the case that biodegradable materials break down in landfill sites; in fact, the opposite is happening. Due to the lack of oxygen and sunlight, we’re finding that items last a lot longer when buried under a mountain of waste.

This leads me to the point that not everything that is advertised as biodegradable actually is which proves that there is no standard testing of biodegradability.

Because biodegradable plastic is a business, companies tend to set the terms on what makes an item “biodegradable.” But there is hope when it comes to setting new standards.

california plastic bag law

California is leading the way by preventing a business from selling plastic goods that state to be biodegradable unless they meet up to specific standards.

Maybe there is some hope!!

Can Biodegradable Waste Be Harmful?

Many biodegradable items are completely harmless to the environment; in fact, they actually benefit the environment.

Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics are not completely harmless.

The main factor is the chemicals that are used to create the plastics create methane while being broken down by micro-organisms. Which, isn’t a bad thing if collected and used as a valuable power source.

The problem is they aren’t being collected. I’m sure by now you’ve all heard of the effects that methane can have when released into the atmosphere so, I won’t go too much into that.

We’re also finding that many biodegradable plastics that end up in the ocean and landfills do not break down as people may be thinking. This is having a detrimental effect on our echo-system.

Luckily, there is hope!!!

Scientists have now invented a plastic entirely made from sugar and carbon-

biodegradable plastic research

This is great news for the environment.

Unlike previous attempts at making biodegradable plastics, this solution can break down using enzymes found in water and soil.

Is Biodegradable Or Compostable Better?

With so many companies trying to promote their eco-friendly packaging, it’s important for you to understand the difference between them and which one is better.

I want to explain what compostable is before we get into which one you should choose.

compostWhat makes a product compostable?

Well, the product needs to made with natural materials; this is often sugar cane or bamboo. Within 90 days the compostable item will then be able to break down in your compost at home.

So, now we know what the terms biodegradable or compostable materials mean, I think it’s important to think which one is going to be more sustainable in the long run.

Which is why compostable wins the race, having the ability to compost at home, and leaving no toxins, far outweighs the business of “biodegradable plastics.”

How Can We Make A Difference?

Now we understand that biodegradable items are just a business technique used to market their products as environmentally friendly, it’s time for all of us to step up.

Why not check out my favorite biodegradable straws?

Start by saying NO to single-use “biodegradable” containers! Why not check out my favorite biodegradable straws?

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