By definition, it means that an item can degrade down to its most biological form, down to natural minerals, carbon dioxide, and back into water as well.
The idea with biodegradable items is that they will imbue back into the earth seamlessly and flawlessly, without damaging the environment, adding to pollution, or hurting wildlife and marine life.
In short, everything goes through the natural cycle of life, and the order of nature is preserved. There’s a time limit of biodegradable materials.
For something to be biodegradable enough to count, it needs to break down in a short enough time span that it doesn’t prohibit plant life from spawning, or damage the ecosystem in any way.
Ideally, a couple of years is as long as it should take for a biodegradable material to decompose and become one with the earth again.
In a nature setting, minerals and elements of the earth help degrade these materials, even if they could last for one or two decades if they’re serving their primary function in a controlled, indoor setting.
By the way, this is completely different from degradable materials.
Marketers will try to trip you up with materials that are degradable versus biodegradable, which means that they will eventually degrade, you know, probably thirty years down the line.
When they do, they’re still polluting the earth by leaving behind trace chemicals that can damage the soil, or get washed away into streams and oceans during rainfall, poisoning marine life.
They’re different terms.
There are a lot of terms that get tossed around: eco-friendly, environmentally friendly, marine degradable, decomposable—the list goes on and on, but they don’t all mean the same thing.
Biodegradable means that it’s good for the environment, and other terms get tricky. It’s also worthwhile to point out that biodegradable items are not necessary compostable.
Compost is built out of decomposing organic matter, and has absolutely no man made components to it whatsoever.
Organic material breaks down quickly, whereas biodegradable man made materials can still take months or years.
Compost typically takes about three months to fully make, which doesn’t meet the same timeline as biodegradable materials, and could be negatively affected by them.
How are Biodegradable Materials Made?
There’s a lot of advancements going on as you’re reading this, so at the time of writing this article, this is the information and methods that we have at our disposal.
Biodegradable materials are those most closely sourced from nature, with as little processing as possible.
This is not only better for the environment, but also works better for manufacturing costs and pollution.
Biodegradable materials are built very close from nature, with as little interjection as possible.
While it wouldn’t be the first thing that you’d think of, the pyramids are technically fully biodegradable.
They’re made of natural materials that has zero manufactured qualities to them, other than how they were physically formed.
One of the most common biodegradable materials that has become popular in recent years is bamboo.
Without the introduction of microorganisms and organic bacteria, bamboo structures are actually some of the most dense and sturdy.
Bamboo is versatile, primarily because it’s extremely tough and hard, but once bamboo comes into contact with natural enzymes, that hard shell becomes soft, and it can break down rapidly.
Bamboo grows extremely fast and spreads far. While it’s not always chosen for construction-grade projects, some bamboo can grow three feet in under a day, which is pretty wild.
Another biodegradable and natural material is cork, which is simply extracted from trees in a safe manner, and then it takes around eight to ten years to fully regrow.
Cork doesn’t need anything done to it: it’s perfect the way it is, apart from being shaped to meet specific needs.
Cork also only takes around two to three years to break down in the environment, and leaves behind absolutely no harm to plant life.
Those are a few examples of natural materials that don’t need a lot of human intervention to be useful.
Then there are some really fascinating ways that people are turning organic matter into construction materials and packaging materials.
For instance, MDF is a material that’s made entirely out of potato starch (the newer version that’s been created by the University of Leicester).
Then you have mycelium, which is built entirely out of naturally occuring fibers derived from fungus.
Over time, these fibers weave together to make an ultra sturdy material that’s usable when dried.
A similar material made from spores is also used in creating organic bricks, which are growing in popularity.
Once introduced to organic cultures, they don’t take very long to break down, but can be as durable as stone bricks while in use.
What is Biodegradable Plastic?
We’ve seen a surge of biodegradable plastics made in recent years in an effort to combat global climate change.
Biodegradable materials come in multiple forms, but of course the one that everyone wants to know about the most is biodegradable plastic.
You can go into a good amount of grocery store chains nowadays and find packages that state that they are made with biodegradable plastics.
These basically have additives to plastic that allow them to break down at a rapid rate (compared to plastic with no additives) when exposed to ultraviolet rays, moisture, and heat.
These may only take three to ten years to fully degrade, and generally leave behind less harmful chemical residue, or none at all.
Then there are non-biodegradable plastics that may be referred to as bioplastics.
The idea behind them is to use “softer” materials, or materials that are less harsh on the environment, to create plastic equivalents that meet the same versatility and durability as plastic in the major manufacturing world.
This creates around 60-75% less greenhouse gasses when the materials break down, which is better than standard lead and phthalate-based plastic, but only so much better.
Either way, there’s still a ton of garbage that’s decaying and adding to the environmental crisis.
Certain studies are being conducted to find rapid biodegradable materials that can be built into a plastic-like resin.
For instance, one recent advancement found a way to make a plastic out of red algae, which can be consumed after use—it’s that safe.
The problem is, making plastic bottles out of it flavors the water, and the containers are much more malleable than traditional plastics.
On a consumer level, many developmental plastics just aren’t feasible for companies to use, and still expect to make a profit.
How is it Made?
There are a few different ways that you can make biodegradable plastics.
Actual biodegradable plastics will naturally break down in nature in a reasonable time frame, without having to douse them in chemicals to begin that process.
These plastics decompose through natural sunlight (ultraviolet rays to be specific), heat, moisture, and microorganisms in the soil.
True biodegradable plastic is made from plant materials, and other natural products.
Some of these plastics are also made out of starch (like the MDF we talked about earlier), corn oil, starch, orange peels, and naturally-occuring fibers that can be see-through when stretched out.
The problem with biodegradable plastic is that it needs to be disposed of properly, or it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.
If biodegradable plastic doesn’t have access to light, most of its dissolving power is taken away.
Ultraviolet light is the only thing that can break down normal plastic as well, and that’s because it has properties that break down the molecular chain that binds plastic together.
If you see any plastic that begins with the word “poly,” that’s referring to the stubborn chain of molecules that bind together.
It’s what makes it difficult—though not impossible—to stretch out plastic by hand until it breaks. Picture pulling a plastic bag apart, and think of it as shattering a ton of molecular chains.
Without ultraviolet light, you have to rely on moisture and heat, which work very slowly to get the job done.
So if biodegradable plastics aren’t in ideal conditions, they are far less effective in actually breaking down properly.
When they get lost in a landfill where they don’t even have access to moisture or heat (such as being stuck in the center of a garbage heap), they might as well be regular plastic.
What are Some Examples of Biodegradable Products?
Biodegradable products have obviously come a long way in recent years, and there are some amazing things out there that could be helping the environment right now.
Toothbrushes, one culprit of plastic waste and pollution, are now biodegradable.
Bamboozled brand made vegan-friendly, charcoal-infused bristle toothbrushes that come with completely bamboo handles, and one eight-pack of them is set to last you for a full year.
Everything in this package (including the recyclable packaging) is earth-conscious and eco-friendly.
These toothbrushes will break down in a few years after being discarded, without harming the earth.
There’s a ton of different plastic bags that contribute to pollution, but dog bags are actually among the worst.
They’re technically discarded while containing organic matter, but then that’s just trapped in there and doesn’t break down.
These bags by Eco-Clean give you a full year supply, and dissolve back into the earth in a healthy way.
Another awesome thing that’s been made biodegradable is plastic wear.
Earth’s Natural Alternative company created biodegradable cutlery, plates, napkins, and even the packaging.
So you can bring single-use items along for a trip or use them at home without worrying about damaging the environment.
They compost in about six months, with the longest amount of time taking up to twelve months.
Water waste is something we don’t often talk about, but body wash, shampoo and soaps all slip down the drain and end up in the ocean.
Joshua Tree brand made a biodegradable body wash that come completely plant-based, and actually works better for your skin than that chemical-ridden $0.99 stuff that you’re always buying.
Better for your body, and for the environment. This is just a sampler of the amazing eco-friendly and biodegradable products out there.
Going with plant-based and fiber-based products not only degrades into the environment better, but some are even compostable, meaning you can play a direct part in how these products get back into the earth.
Purchasing a steel or aluminum compost bin and putting your compostable food waste and packaging into them is a simple task, and lets you directly spread the compost on your own property or donate it to local farmers to keep plastics out of the ocean.
How Long Does it Take Biodegradable Materials to Break Down in the Soil?
In the soil, it can take about two to three years on average, in ideal conditions.
That means plenty of sunlight for ultraviolet rays, good amounts of moisture, and plenty of heat over the course of those years in order to break down the molecular chains that bind plastic.
That’s ideal, but far from likely.
If biodegradable plastics are getting roughly 30-40% of the conditions that are required to break them down at an accelerated rate, you’re still looking at ten to twelve years before they are safely broken down, and meld back into the earth without causing harm.
There are exceptions to the rule here.
We’re discussing an average, but biodegradable plastic shopping bags can completely degrade in as little as three months, which is fantastic when you compare it to normal plastic shopping bags.
Biodegradable single-use plastic cups (so long as they are free of dyes) can break down in roughly nine months to one year.
Different products have different lifespans, but there’s one harsh truth about biodegradable plastics that nobody is talking about.
A good amount of these plastics end up in landfills where they don’t degrade properly.
Recycling biodegradable plastics is like saying, “Why even bother?” since most recycling facilities in America don’t accept items made out of many biodegradable plastics, and then have to toss them in the garbage.
It’s tricky to find a way to make these plastics more convenient for consumers.
What About the Ocean?
There’s a major benefit and a huge drawback to biodegradable plastic being in the ocean.
On the one hand, it is technically better than what we currently have floating in the ocean.
Truly biodegradable plastic does not have BPA, phthalates and other harmful chemicals in them, so it’s not as bad, but it is still bad.
Biodegradable plastic will have constant moisture in the ocean, and since most of it floats on top of the water, it will begin to degrade from the intense ultraviolet rays of the sun, and the way it reflects off the water to intensify the heat.
In theory, it’s actually a great environment for biodegradable plastic.
Since garbage floats and is rarely in a heap with no sunlight access, all biodegradable plastics will have some amount of sunlight exposure, which will expedite their breakdown time.
However, in practice, it’s not quite that simple.
While these plastics are better than lead and BPA-based plastics because they don’t imbue the ocean with chemicals, biodegradable plastic is still killing marine life.
Whales are washing up on the shore with hundreds of bits of plastic in their stomachs, slowly strangling them from within or signaling that they aren’t hungry, and then forcing them to die from starvation.
Biodegradable plastics still take time to decompose, so even if the next one trillion pieces of plastic that go into the ocean are completely biodegradable, you still have upwards of two to three years before they would completely dissolve into the ocean.
That’s a ton of time for fish and larger marine life to ingest plastic and be killed by it. It just isn’t enough to solve the problems in the ocean.
The only problem that it would be helping with is de-oxygenation, which is when enough chemicals spill into the ocean that it removes oxygen from the water, killing fish and marine life and causing what are known as dead zones: places that life just can’t exist in the ocean.
Dead zones are expanding, and while truly biodegradable plastics would prevent massive spills of harmful chemicals, it’s still not something we want in our oceans.
A Biodegradable Future
Biodegradable materials are gaining in popularity, but not at the rate that we need in order to curb the issues we face as a global society.
You can do your part by switching to reusable items, as well as exclusively buying biodegradable plastics in favor of BPA and lead-based plastics.
Regardless of how large the issue is, it’s not going to be properly handled until we change our own personal purchase and use habits.
Everything works on a collective level, and there’s still enough time to turn things around for the better.