Are polymers biodegradable? (7 examples of natural polymers) 

In this article, the biodegradability of polymers will be taken into account. Other findings of the article will be:

  • What is biodegradability?
  • Why is biodegradability urgent?
  • What are the impacts of non-biodegradable products?
  • What are polymers?
  • What are the types of polymers?
  • Are polymers biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Are polymers biodegradable?

Natural polymers are biodegradable whereas non-natural polymers are not biodegradable. Both types of polymers are abundant around us. 

Non-natural polymers are structured in a way that microbes are unable to break down. They may persist for more than 900 hundred years while causing extreme harm to life and the environment.

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability is a process through which complex materials are broken down into simple materials by the action of microbes. These microbes can be bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even yeast. 

The process of biodegradability can be called a natural dustbin because it is nature’s way to ensure that there is no waste accumulation in the environment. It is coded in the profile of nature that waste has harmful impacts on the environment. 

The harmful impacts of waste are not just restricted to the environment but also the life that resides within it. If there is no biodegradation, there will be waste and deterioration of life and our atmosphere, in short, a global catastrophe. 

Regarding biodegradability, it is generally thought that there are two types of waste. These are biodegradable and non-biodegradable. 

As the name suggests, biodegradable waste can be broken down by the action of microbes. This waste can be plant-based or animal-based wastes. Other examples of this waste will include: 

  • Food waste
  • Animal waste
  • Human waste
  • Paper waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage
  • Hospital waste
  • Dead plants
  • Biopolymers 

On the other hand, non-biodegradable waste is a type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. Such a type of waste is usually not found in nature. This means that non-biodegradable waste is mostly made or synthesised in the lab. Examples of non-biodegradable waste may be: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste
  • Hospital waste 
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA 
  • EVA 

These are some examples of non-biodegradable waste which is associated with a lot of detrimental impacts on health, life and the environment. These aspects will be shed light on in later sections of the article. 

Why is biodegradability an urgent matter?

After a detailed introduction to what biodegradability is, you may wonder why biodegradability is an urgent matter. It is believed that the statistical assertions are fervent enough answer to this curiosity. 

The world’s population stands at around 7.8 billion and is expected to cross the threshold of 11 billion in the years to come. As far as waste production is concerned, it is estimated that an average person makes more than 4-5 kgs of waste per day. 

If you do the maths, the results are beyond staggering. The global waste production stands at a whopping 2 billion tons which may reach up to 3 billion tons in the coming time. Out of these 2 billion tons, around 1 billion tons of waste are not discarded properly. 

To further exacerbate the situation, if more non-biodegradable waste is generated as compared to biodegradable waste, then this simply implies our doomsday. There will be no space left to keep and treat the waste products and this will affect every life that is out there in the world, not to mention the effects on our future. 

This approach is bluntly opposite to what the principles of sustainability are. Sustainability preaches to be useful in the present in a way that the future generations’ needs are not sacrificed. 

That is why biodegradability is an urgent matter. We need to shift toward biodegradable waste both as a consumer and as a human because otherwise, there is no way out. 

Further, given the current context of science and technology, it is easily possible to shift to biodegradable waste. As the environmental concern is rising, more and more people and producers are shifting towards sustainable and eco-friendly. 

As a result, biodegradability and sustainability have become easy options to opt for without going the extra mile. Popular examples can be bio-based plastics, bio-polymers, natural fertilisers, renewable sources of energy et cetera. 

What are the impacts of non-biodegradable waste?

The need for biodegradable waste has already been asserted and made fervent in the last section. Here we will assess some of the impacts that non-biodegradable waste has on the environment. 

These effects can be: 

  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Rise in temperature
  • A rise in sea levels
  • Melting glaciers
  • More floods
  • Frequent droughts
  • Unprecedented weather patterns
  • Insects attacks
  • Land degradation
  • Food shortage
  • Food security concerns
  • Species endangerment 
  • Infiltration into the food chains
  • Loss of aquatic life
  • Accumulation of plastics
  • Disruptions of ecosystems

However, it may also be asserted that the effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment, they are also impactful on health as well. Below are the common health issues that arise from non-biodegradable waste:

  • Abnormality
  • Reproductive complications
  • Hormonal issues
  • Damage to foetus
  • Necrosis
  • Skin damage
  • Eye allergies
  • Organ defects
  • Cancer
  • Mutation
  • Psychological complication
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Neuro-toxicity
  • Neurological complications 

These are some of the issues that are caused by the existence of non-biodegradable waste. In the light of mentioned facts, it is proposed that non-biodegradable waste is blunt harm and threat to life and life-supporting systems. 

What are polymers?

In our world which is thronged with commercial products having economical and utilitarian values, there are countless materials and products that are related to polymers. 

Just as the skies up there are filled with stars, the earth down is filled with both natural and synthetic materials. If you are asked to take a look around and tell how many polymers you see, it is very possible that your answer will surprise you as well. 

In today’s time, wherever we look, we will find polymers. Be it the plastic chair you are sitting on or the tyres on which your car is moving. Be it the wooden table you are working on or the fancy laptop on which you are reading this article. 

There are polymers everywhere and we all know it. But what we don’t know is what are polymers at a molecular level, what are the classification of polymers, and how to know which polymers are good for us and which polymers cause more harm than good. 

The word polymer is derived from the Greek language (as most scientific words are) which means many parts. And this is what it is. Polymers are many small parts linked together. This link however is chemical (covalent bonds, ionic bonds et cetera). 

The small parts of a polymer are referred to as monomers. Polymers are found in nature as well as in the labs. However, polymers found in nature are considered more diverse, as the links in their chains differ from their neighbours. 

If you look at life around, be it yourself in the mirror or large trees. All are made from natural polymers also referred to as macromolecules. This is because these molecules are very large owing to abundant linkages. 

What are the types of polymers? (7 examples of natural polymers) 

As stated, polymers are found everywhere. Since these polymers are so abundant, it is important to give proper attention and detailing to the concept of polymers. 

Polymers can be classified into two groups or types based on our subject of biodegradability. These are: 

  • Natural polymers 
  • Synthetic polymers

Natural polymers are those polymers found in nature. It can be said that nature is the scientist that made these polymers and quite a magnificent one. Examples of these polymers can be: 

  • DNA
  • Protein
  • Cellulose
  • Silk
  • Wool
  • Carbohydrates
  • Chiton

These natural polymers adhere to nature’s ways and thus pose no great threats to nature and the environment. However, there are some factors that may change this proclivity. 

As per synthetic polymers, these polymers are synthesised in the lab. These synthetic polymers are created by man and the rule of thumb is that most of them do not really adhere to nature’s ways. Examples of these polymers may be: 

  • PVC
  • Polyethylene
  • Polyester
  • Epoxy
  • Teflon
  • Dyneema
  • Nylon
  • PET 

These are examples of synthetic polymers which are of great utilitarian value but may become quite harmful to nature. 

Are polymers biodegradable?

After an apt introduction to biodegradability and the science of polymers, it can be speculated that: 

  • Natural materials can be degraded by the action of microbes 
  • Non-natural materials can not be degraded by the action of microbes because microbes can not break down their structures. Therefore, these substances can be called non-biodegradable. 

In the light of deliberations done on the topic of polymers, it can further be asserted that: 

  • Natural polymers like wood, cellulose or fibres are biodegradable
  • Non-natural polymers like PVC, PET, and EVA are not biodegradable

These non-natural polymers may remain in the environment for a very long time and may cause numerous impacts on the environment and life. These may be: 

  • Species endangerment 
  • Infiltration into the food chains
  • Loss of aquatic life
  • Accumulation of plastics
  • Disruptions of ecosystems
  • Necrosis
  • Skin damage
  • Eye allergies
  • Organ defects
  • Cancer
  • Mutation
  • Psychological complication
  • Depression
  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Rise in temperature

It is studied that synthetic polymers like plastics may take up to a thousand years to degrade which is next to infinite given our context of life. 

Whereas, natural polymers may degrade in some days or a few months. However, they will not take many years like synthetic polymers do. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that polymers may be natural and non-natural. Natural polymers are biodegradable whereas non-natural polymers are not biodegradable.

This is because non-natural polymers are structured in a way that microbes are unable to break down. They may persist for more than 900 hundred years while causing extreme harm to life and the environment. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Are polymers biodegradable?

Can polymers be recycled?

Yes, most of the polymers (natural and non-natural) can be reused and recycled. Therefore, the right disposal of polymer materials must be ensured.

Can polymers be made into compost?

Natural polymers like wood et cetera can be converted into compost because compost is decaying organic matter. This compost can be used as a fertiliser. 

References 

  • Young, R. J., & Lovell, P. A. (2011). Introduction to polymers. CRC press.
  • Strobl, G. R., & Strobl, G. R. (1997). The physics of polymers(Vol. 2, p. 83). Berlin: Springer.
  • Vroman, I., & Tighzert, L. (2009). Biodegradable polymers. Materials, 2(2), 307-344.
  • Gross, R. A., & Kalra, B. (2002). Biodegradable polymers for the environment. Science, 297(5582), 803-807.

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