What does Biodegradable Mean? An Easy 5 Minute Guide

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In our throwaway society, biodegradable products are a hot commodity. We want to be able to use something and then have it go away without harming the environment.

But what does biodegradable mean? Which materials are biodegradable, and which are not?

This article will explore biodegradability and answer some common questions about it.

You'll learn what biodegradable means, what materials are biodegradable, and how biodegradation works. You'll also find out why choosing biodegradable products is important for the environment.

Definition of Biodegradable

The word biodegradable, as defined by Webster's:

biodegradable (ˌbaɪəʊdɪˈɡreɪdəbəl) (adj)(Environmental Science) (of sewage constituents, packaging material, etc) capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other biological means

Biodegradable refers to a material that has the capability to break down over time, by bacteria or other natural processes, and return to its natural elements.

What does Biodegradable not mean?

The term biodegradable does not mean that biodegrading will immediately occur. The biodegradation process takes time; biodegradable products remain in the environment until biodegradation occurs.

One should also keep in mind that what biodegrades does not necessarily compost. For example, although some plastics are biodegradable, they do not compost.

Biodegradable vs Compostable - what is the difference?

What is the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable Materials?

Biodegradable materials contain bioplastics, which are biopolymers that biodegrade more quickly than biobased plastics. Biodegradable materials can be added to landfills, compost piles, or other sites that promote biodegradation.

Compostable materials, on the other hand, go through biological processing in order to biodegrade completely within a short period of time. Compostable items may biodegrade in any number of composting conditions, as long as those conditions are right for biodegrading the material.

How to Tell if a Product is Biodegradable

There are two main ways to identify biodegradable products. First, biodegradable items will typically have either a "100% biodegradable" or "oxo-biodegradable" label on the packaging.

Second, one can also look for a percentage of biodegradation within a standard time frame. Typically, biodegradable materials biodegrade within a standard time frame of 1 to 5 months.

Examples of Materials that ARE Biodegradable

Some materials that are biodegradable typically include food waste, plant-based bioplastics, biopolymers, biocomposites, wood and paper products. Biodegradable waste will typically break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass.

When you browse TheRoundup's eco-friendly product reviews section, you'll find our roundups of various biodegradable and compostable household products. From trash bags to baby wipes, you can help the environment by making the right choice when you buy everyday items.

Examples of Materials that ARE NOT Biodegradable

Petroleum-based plastics made from organic polymers, such as PVC, and all grades of polystyrene are biodegradable.

This means they do not biodegrade in any reasonable amount of time unless placed in a hazardous waste landfill. The same goes for household items such as plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, and Styrofoam food containers.

How Long Do Materials Take to Biodegrade?

Many products can be considered biodegradable, even some non-natural materials such as plastics. But the length of time that they will take to decompose fully will vary.

When biodegradable waste is exposed to decomposing microbes, it biodegrades. This process of biodegradation occurs in the environment when microorganisms present in the soil get access to biodegradable items and start feeding upon them.

The biodegradable material is converted back into carbon dioxide or other simpler molecules by these microbes under the influence of biotic and abiotic factors.

It is difficult to give specific time periods for biodegradation as various biodegradable items biodegrade at different rates under different conditions.

biodegradable plastic bag

Should I Avoid Biodegradable Plastics?

Things like food waste will only release naturally occurring minerals, gases, and other natural materials. But any synthetic material, including plastic, is seldom environmentally friendly.

Biodegradable plastic sounds good in theory, and it certainly helps prevent plastic waste. But it's still not necessarily a good thing. Biodegradable plastics can still contain harmful chemicals, toxic gases, and microplastics which will be released when the biodegradable plastic decomposes.

However, compostable plastics are a better option.

Compostable plastics are generally found in things like food packaging. They are often made from plants, and can therefore be put on your garden compost heap along with other compostable waste such as food scraps.

What are Some Synonyms for Biodegradable?

There are no real synonyms for biodegradable because no other term means exactly the same thing. Many people confuse the terms compostable and biodegradable, and they have similar meanings but are not quite the same, as I described earlier.

The Final Word

When you think of biodegradable, what comes to mind? Chances are, you might think of something that is good for the environment - items that can break down and won't leave behind any toxic waste.

If you came to this article to find the meaning of the word biodegradable, you might have been surprised to learn that it isn't always a good thing.

Biodegradable doesn't always mean sustainable, and it's important to be aware of the differences between biodegradable, compostable, and degradable items.

In particular, biodegradable doesn't always mean that something will break down quickly or easily. In fact, some biodegradable material can take years or even centuries to decompose! So if you recognize the need to live sustainably, it's important to be mindful of the claims companies make about their products.

That being said, compostable products are, generally speaking, a much safer choice for the environment.

Arabella Ruiz is a senior researcher at The Roundup. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and has been interested in the environment from an early age. Arabella loves to campaign for environmental causes and fundraise for charities that aim to preserve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species or help people with climate change problems.
Arabella Ruiz
Arabella Ruiz is a senior researcher at The Roundup. She lives in San Antonio, Texas and has been interested in the environment from an early age. Arabella loves to campaign for environmental causes and fundraise for charities that aim to preserve wildlife habitat, protect endangered species or help people with climate change problems.

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