What Does Biodegradable Mean?

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“Biodegradable” is a common way to describe a material or product that has to do with its ability to naturally break down over time, but what does it actually mean and what types of materials are truly biodegradable?

In this article, we’ll cover the meaning of the word “biodegradable”, the biodegradation process, product examples of both bio-degradable and non-biodegradable items, and how to tell if an item can be considered biodegradable.

Biodegradable Definition:

A property of a material or product, meaning that it can decompose and return to the earth naturally.

Non-Biodegradable Definition:

A property of a material or product, meaning that it cannot decompose and will remain in its current state indefinitely without breaking down

Biodegradation is the process by which organic matter is broken down into simpler organic or inorganic molecules by bacteria, fungi, or other forms of decomposers. The process is essential for recycling nutrients in ecosystems, but it can also cause problems when pollutants are broken down into harmful substances.

The Biodegradation Process

The process of decomposing organic matter is known as biodegradation. This process is essential for the recycling of nutrients in ecosystems and the production of soil humus.

Biodegradation occurs naturally, but can be accelerated by introducing additional microorganisms.

Decomposers such as bacteria, fungi, and small insects will grow from and consume the decomposing material, which breaks it down over time.

How Long Does it Take for Something to Biodegrade?

The rate of biodegradation can take anywhere from days to centuries. The speed at which an item decomposes depends on a number of factors, including the type of material being decomposed, temperature and environmental conditions, presence of oxygen, and the amount of moisture.

When conditions are favorable, biodegradation can occur very rapidly. For example, food waste can be completely decomposed in just a few days.

However, under unfavorable conditions, such as in a landfill, decomposition can take years, decades, or even centuries.

Understanding the process of biodegradation is important for managing waste and improving environmental quality.

What Materials Are Biodegradable?

Biodegradable items are made from organic natural materials from plants, animals or other pure organic matter.

They will eventually decompose, creating:

  • Gas: Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
  • Liquid: Water (H₂O)
  • Solid: Compost

What Materials Are Not Biodegradable?

There are items that are non-biodegradable. Synthetic materials like plastic or metal will not decompose. Even if some materials will physically break down eventually, it can take hundreds of years.

Here are a few examples of materials and the years required to decompose by WWF [1].

  • Plastic toothbrush: 500 years
  • Coffee pod: 500 years
  • Plastic water bottle: 450 years
  • Plastic straw: 200 years

If you’re doing the math like we are and considering when these items were created… that means that for most of these items, every single one that was ever created is still out there, not decomposing and often not getting reused.

This is why it’s important to use biodegradable and reusable products whenever possible. There are widely available alternatives for all of these products and so many more – like our bamboo toothbrushes!

Is it Biodegradable?

In addition to the examples above of common products that are non-biodegradable, here are a few more that fall on either side.

Biodegradable Product Examples

ItemTime to DecomposeMaterials
Vegetables5 days to 1 monthOrganic plant matter
Paper2 to 5 monthsPrimarily organic plant matter (can vary)
T-shirt (cotton)6 monthsOrganic plant matter
Wool socks1 to 5 yearsOrganic animal matter
Leather shoes25 to 40 yearsOrganic animal matter

Non-Biodegradable Product Examples

ItemTime to DecomposeMaterials
Plastic bag500+ yearsSynthetic
Styrofoam cups500+ yearsSynthetic
Aluminum cans80 to 100 yearsMetal
6-pack plastic rings400 yearsSynthetic
Decomposition times referenced from WWF Australia [1] and New Zealand Science Learning Hub [2]

Just because something isn’t biodegradable, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a responsible and eco-friendly way to use them. While avoiding single-use plastics in general is recommended, materials like glass and metals can often be reused, recycled, or repurposed.

How Can I Tell if Something is Biodegradable?

The examples above were fairly straightforward because they’re primarily single-material items. But many of the products we use are mixed with natural and synthetic materials.

Many companies are starting to put packaging materials on their products, which is very helpful in this case. If your packaging is labeled as biodegradable or compostable, you can be confident in those materials.

If it is not labeled, consider what the packaging and product is made of. If it is cardboard, paper, or plant-based materials, it’s likely biodegradable. However, if the product or packaging contains plastics, Styrofoam, metals, or glass it will not be biodegradable.

Beware of greenwashing companies when looking into a product’s environmentally friendliness – some products may be made to appear more earth-friendly than they really are.

When selecting products, you may not have a fully biodegradable option in some cases. For these instances, check out the reusability and recyclability of the products to determine your best option.

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Citations for This Article

APA

Plonkey, Jim. (December 7, 2022). What Does Biodegradable Mean?. Natural Replacements. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from https://naturalreplacements.com/learn/environment/biodegradable/

MLA

Plonkey, Jim. "What Does Biodegradable Mean?." Natural Replacements, https://naturalreplacements.com/learn/environment/biodegradable/

Chicago

Plonkey, Jim. "What Does Biodegradable Mean?." Natural Replacements, Last modified December 7, 2022. https://naturalreplacements.com/learn/environment/biodegradable/

Jim Plonkey

Jim Plonkey is a Co-founder of Natural Replacements. A digital marketing professional with a passion for sustainability, Jim lives in Southeast Michigan and enjoys traveling to new places, spending time outdoors - kayaking, hiking, and gardening, and yoga.

Content on the Natural Replacements is produced under the guidance of our editorial standards.

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