How much biodegradable is biodegradable plastic? (9 examples of biodegradable waste)

In this article, the extent of biodegradability of biodegradable plastic will be put into question. Other covered topics will be: 

  • What is biodegradable plastic?
  • What is plastic?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • How is waste classified based on biodegradability?
  • Why is biodegradable plastic important?
  • Are biodegradable plastics eco-friendly?
  • FAQs

How much biodegradable is biodegradable plastic?

Biodegradable plastics are biodegradable but may take more than three years to degrade. Further, the complete biodegradability of bioplastics is still being explored and put into question. 

Biodegradable plastics also can not be called 100% eco-friendly because they may introduce toxicity and their production does involve the use of non-renewable resources which are fossil-fuel based. 

What is biodegradable plastic?

Biodegradable plastics are made from naturally occurring substances that may include plants such as cornstarch or sugar cane. Since these bio-based plastics are sourced from nature, they can biodegrade to become a part of nature again. 

The story of biodegradable plastic originated after the invention of conventional plastic and its increased use, primarily after the industrialisation era. This increase in use caused great harm to many aspects of life and the environment. 

With the advent of increased industrialisation, consumerism, and urbanisation; unimaginable amounts of plastic were used and consumed causing almost equal negative impacts on life, health and the environment. 

The use of conventional plastic has caused an immense impact on the environment. Plastic is converted into microplastic by the action of sunlight and other drivers that cause the death of organisms by entering their bodies. 

Biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials such as wheat, sugar cane or cornstarch. These plastics are made by converting sugars present in the plants into plastics. 

The source of this sugar can be sugar cane, sugar beets, wheat, and potatoes. This selection varies from region to region depending upon the availability. 

Generally, there are two types of biodegradable plastics that are produced. These are PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate) and PLA (Polyactideacid). 

Since these biodegradable plastics are made from natural materials, they can degrade in a short span of time as compared to conventional plastic bags which may require hundreds of years to degrade.

What is plastic?

Plastic is a polymer which is made from repeating units (monomers) and these monomers are linked with chemical bonds. 

Polymers are made up of small repeating units. These small repeating units are termed monomers. Monomers are held together by chemical bonds.

Polymers can be classified into two groups. These can be natural and synthetic. As the name suggests, natural polymers are found in nature. There is no need to synthesise them in any way. Whereas, synthetic polymers, on the other hand, are synthesised in the lab.

Natural polymers are those polymers found in nature. Examples may include wool, silk, nucleic acids, and proteins. 

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 epoxies, plastics, nylon et cetera. 

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. 

How is waste classified based on biodegradability? (9 examples of biodegradable waste) 

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 

Why is biodegradable plastic important?

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 plastic 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 plastic:

  • 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 

Are biodegradable plastics actually eco-friendly?

It is usually perceived that if a product is biodegradable, it will also be eco-friendly. However, it has been asserted that this is a major misconception. 

There are many factors that create a rift between biodegradability and eco-friendliness. That is why, even if a product is biodegradable, it does not necessarily mean it will be eco-friendly as well. 

In our case, we have seen that since biodegradable plastics are made from plant-based substances like sugar cane and corn starch, they can be degraded by the action of microbes. 

However, the question still remains how much time is needed for bioplastics to degrade? It is researched that bio-plastics may also take up to 3 years to fully degrade under aquatic conditions. 

This time period is not that great given the context of common biodegradable products which may degrade in a few months. 

Further, it is also asserted that bioplastics may be equally toxic as conventional plastics. Recent studies have exposed that bio-plastics may also contain several harmful substances that pose risks to life and the environment. 

Further, since bioplastics are sourced from plant-based products, it is important to make them sustainably because otherwise there will be an unnecessary strain on plant production which may be met through the use of agrochemicals and non-renewable resources. 

How much biodegradable is biodegradable plastic?

Based on the discussions and details up to now, it is possible to jump to our main question, which is how much biodegradable is biodegradable plastic. 

When biodegradability is referred to, it is mostly about natural materials. These natural waste or materials may include fruits, vegetables, and natural fabrics like cotton or silk. 

All these materials are readily biodegradable and may degrade in a week’s time as well. However, in some cases, the biodegradability of natural materials may also take some months. 

For example, in the case of cotton, it is seen that it may require 5 months to degrade. The exact duration of degradation is actually a matter of external conditions like microbes, aeration, sunlight, temperature et cetera. 

Plastics are notoriously perceived to be non-biodegradable. It is known that there are 7 classes of plastics. Out of these seven, all six are non-biodegradable and may take up to a thousand years to degrade. 

This duration is next to infinity for us because plastic production is so intense that waiting for a thousand years is similar to waiting for doomsday. 

In response to non-biodegradable plastic which, other than being non-biodegradable, has a plethora of negative impacts on the people and the planet; biodegradable plastics were introduced that were made from plant-based materials. 

However, it has been assessed that even these plant-based plastics come along with a bundle of environmental and health-related complications. 

Bioplastics may take more than three years to degrade. This is already a grave figure, given the context of other biodegradable plastic. 

Further, the complete biodegradability of bioplastics is still a scientific curiosity as some argue that bioplastics are not entirely biodegradable and may do so under certain external conditions. 

Verged with that, there are researchers who claim to link factors of toxicity and environmental degradation with bioplastics too. 

In the light of these propositions, it is justified to say that although bioplastics are biodegradable, there are many more milestones to be covered for biodegradable plastics to become completely biodegradable and eco-friendly. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that biodegradable plastics are biodegradable but may take more than three years to degrade. Further, the complete biodegradability of bioplastics is still being explored and put into question. 

Biodegradable plastics also can not be called 100% eco-friendly because they may introduce toxicity and their production does involve the use of non-renewable resources which are fossil-fuel based. 

Frequently Asked Questions: How much biodegradable is biodegradable plastic?

How long does non-biodegradable plastic take to degrade?

Conventional plastic may take up to a thousand years to degrade while causing harm and threats to life and the environment.

Is biodegradable plastic the same as bioplastic?

Yes, fundamentally there is no difference. Biodegradable plastics are made from plant-based materials like corn starch or sugar cane and that is why they are called bioplastics as well.

References

  • Tokiwa, Y., Calabia, B. P., Ugwu, C. U., & Aiba, S. (2009). Biodegradability of plastics. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 3722-3742.
  • Bulkeley, H., & Askins, K. (2009). Waste interfaces: biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice. Geographical Journal, 175(4), 251-260.
  • Zimmermann, L., Dombrowski, A., Völker, C., & Wagner, M. (2020). Are bioplastics and plant-based materials safer than conventional plastics? In vitro toxicity and chemical composition. Environment international, 145, 106066.
  • Arikan, E. B., & Ozsoy, H. D. (2015). A review: investigation of bioplastics. J. Civ. Eng. Arch, 9(1), 188-192.

What was missing from this post which could have made it better?

Leave a Comment