Biodegradable is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it mean? In this article, we’re going to explore what biodegradability means and why it’s essential. By the end of the article, you’ll know everything you need about biodegradable products and whether or not they’re suitable for the environment.
What Does Biodegradability Mean?
When talking about biodegradables, most people think of composting and green waste disposal. But what does the term mean?
Biodegradability usually refers to products or materials broken down by natural environmental processes, such as composting or decomposing in soil.
This means that these items do not produce harmful emissions or residues after use, which is essential for environmental reasons.
To be considered “biodegradable,” an object must be able to break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time in a natural environment. This means that the object must be able to release nutrients, water, and other essential materials back into the soil or groundwater where it originated.
Some biodegradable products, such as plastics made from plant-based materials, are designed to break down into small molecules that are not toxic or damaging to the environment. Others, such as paper products made from wood pulp, may have residual chemicals that need to be eliminated by unique treatment processes.
The critical thing to remember when shopping for biodegradable products is to check the label. Many items labeled “biodegradable” may only degrade slowly over time, so it’s essential to read the ingredient list carefully to ensure you’re getting what you expect.
What Are the Benefits of Biodegradable Products?
Biodegradable materials offer several benefits to society, the environment, and the manufacturer. Here are five of the most important ones:
1. Biodegradable materials are environmentally friendly, and they break down into natural substances in the environment, providing a way for waste to decompose without contributing to pollution.
2. Biodegradable materials are cheaper to produce and manage than traditional materials. This is because they don’t need to be disposed of in landfills and can be reused or recycled multiple times.
3. Biodegradable materials can help conserve resources. For example, by breaking down into natural substances, biodegradable plastics use less energy to manufacture and ultimately consume less water and other resources when disposed of.
4. Biodegradable materials can protect humans and the environment from harmful chemicals and pollutants. When appropriately biodegraded, these materials break down into harmless substances that are non-toxic and free of contaminants.
In addition to the benefits listed above, biodegradable materials can offer some unique advantages over traditional materials.
For example, biodegradable materials are often more flexible and durable, which makes them better suited for specific applications.
What Are the Drawbacks of Biodegradable Products?
One of the most popular benefits of biodegradable products is that they are environmentally friendly. However, there are a few disadvantages to using biodegradable products.
The first disadvantage is that biodegradable products may take longer to break down in the environment than non-biodegradable products.
This can create environmental waste and add to pollution levels.
Biodegradable materials may also create toxic byproducts when breaking down, harming the environment.
Another disadvantage of using biodegradable products is that some people may perceive them as less durable than non-biodegradable products.
This is because biodegradable materials may eventually decompose into smaller pieces, which can cause damage or wear on equipment or surfaces. In addition, if a biodegradable product is not correctly disposed of, it may further pollute the environment.
Types of Biodegradable Materials
There are three main types of biodegradable materials: compostable, degradable, and recyclable.
Compostable materials break down into organic matter in the soil, whereas degradable materials eventually break down into molecules smaller than atoms or molecules that can be recycled. Recyclable materials can be reused multiple times.
Each type of material has its benefits and drawbacks. Compostable materials are environmentally friendly because they decompose quickly.
The environment can process degradable materials more efficiently but may not break down entirely and contain toxins.
Recyclable materials are better for the environment because they can be reused multiple times and don’t release toxins into the environment.
How Can Biodegradable Materials Be Used in the Construction Industry?
In the construction industry, many materials are often not biodegradable.
This is because biodegradable materials are often more expensive, but there are ways around this.
One way biodegradable materials can be used in the construction industry is by using insulation.
Insulation is often a vital part of a building’s thermal envelope and can help keep the building warm in winter and cool in summer. By using biodegradable insulation, the construction industry can help reduce its environmental impact.
How Do Biodegradable Materials Degrade?
From an environmental perspective, biodegradable materials are ideal because they help reduce the amount of waste created.
When biodegraded, these materials break down into natural components such as methane and carbon dioxide, which can be eliminated from the environment.
When biodegrade materials, a few key steps are necessary. The first step is to break down the material into small enough pieces so microorganisms can digest it.
Once the material is broken down, the microorganisms start to work on it. They will consume the material and release nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which will help degrade the material further.
Eventually, the material will completely disappear from the environment.
A few factors can affect how quickly a biodegradable material decomposes. Some factors that influence how fast a material decomposes include temperature, moisture levels, and the type of microorganisms involved in the process.
Generally speaking, biodegradable materials will degrade faster in warmer environments and under humid conditions than in more relaxed environments or dry conditions.
While biodegradable materials are ideal for reducing environmental waste, it is essential to note that not all biodegradable materials are created equal. Some materials like cornstarch and paper are not easily broken down by microorganisms and will require more time to decompose.
Protected Groups for Biodegradable Materials
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “biodegradable” means an artificial or natural material that can be broken down by bacteria, fungi, or other organisms into substances that are less harmful to the environment.
Some biodegradable materials used in packaging and products can break down in as few as 10-30 days under specific environmental conditions, such as sunlight and warm temperatures.
The EPA has created a list of nine protected groups for biodegradable materials: Agricultural, municipal solid waste, infectious wastes, hazardous waste, medical wastes, mining wastes, oilfield wastes, and wastewater sludge.
This list ensures that all types of biodegradable material will have the same protection from being released into the environment.
Regulations for Biodegradable Material
Biodegradable material can be broken down by natural processes, such as composting or microorganisms breaking down organic matter.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed regulations for biodegradable materials as an environmental impact statement (EIS).
The EPA has determined that biodegradable materials must meet the following criteria to be designated as such:
The material must be able to break down into smaller and more sustainable components under normal environmental conditions;
The material must not produce harmful gases or particles when breaking down; and
The material must not accumulate in nature.
Several factors determine whether a material is biodegradable, including the type of polymer used, the method of manufacture, and the environment in which it will be used.
Generally speaking, biodegradable materials are more environmentally friendly than their non-biodegradable counterparts, as they release fewer harmful gases and do not accumulate in nature.
Is biodegradable plastic good?
Biodegradable plastics are a better choice because they break down quickly and can be absorbed by the soil or turned into compost.
Can biodegradable plastic be recycled?
Biodegradable plastics other than polyethylene terephthalate (PET) should not be recycled because these plastics contaminate the process and lead to poor quality recycled products. In unprocessed environments, plastic litter could end up in:
- Marine areas.
- Freshwater bodies like lakes.
- Aquatic anaerobic digestion plants treat drinking water and soil.
How do you dispose of biodegradable items?
Products labeled ‘Biodegradable’ can be composted or recycled in your garbage if you’re concerned about wasting less.
Remember that landfills lack the necessary microorganisms and oxygen, so you should not use non-recyclable or non-compostable items, as it might take longer to biodegrade in these environments.