Is degradable the same as biodegradable?  (7 examples of biodegradable waste) 

In this article, the difference between degradation and biodegradation will be analysed. Other covered topics will be:

  • What is the difference between biodegradation and degradation?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • What is the impact of non-biodegradable waste?
  • What is degradation?
  • What is composting and how does it enter the picture?
  • FAQs

Is degradable the same as biodegradable?

Degradable and biodegradable are not the same. Biodegradation is the breakdown by the action of microbes and enzymes whereas degradation happens mostly chemically and does not include the action of enzymes and microbes. 

Degradation is a time-consuming process and may take hundreds of years to complete. The end product of the degradation process may also lead to the discharge of toxic pollutants. 

Biodegradation may happen in some days to a few years. Generally, there are no harmful effects of the biodegradation process. However, there are some exceptions present such as hydrogen sulphide. 

There is a lot of similarity between composting and biodegradation. However, owing to certain specificities, not all biodegradable materials can be composed. 

Composting is the conversion of dead organic matter into compost which may be used as a natural fertiliser to improve soil organic content and water retention profiles. 

What is the difference between degradation and biodegradation?

The section will cover and explain the subtle difference between degradation and biodegradation. Several related aspects will also be shed light upon in the remaining sections of the article. 

Principally, both terms imply the same outcome. The outcome is the breakdown of material into simpler material. However, their effect on earth may vary and be different. 

However, the route adopted by each term is different. In the case of biodegradation, enzymes are the heroes as they are responsible for the degradation of waste or material into simpler materials. The main focus is on the microorganisms that break down waste into simpler materials.

The microbes that generally do biodegradation may include bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and even algae. 

Even the word biodegradation is combined from two discrete words. Bio means life whereas degradation refers to the breakdown process. 

It may also be stated that regardless of the discrepancy between degradation and biodegradation, both terms and processes are very important for our survival. 

If there is no degradation, there will be waste accumulation. This accumulated waste will then lead to the pollution of water, land, and air. In short, the whole world may become a huge dustbin and its stink will drive all the species on the brink of extinction. 

However, as per the degradation process, it is also the breakdown into simpler materials but not via the action of microbes or enzymes. Degradation usually occurs by the action of chemicals or external conditions such as water or sunlight.

While the effects of biodegradation are mostly positive, the case of degradation may be antagonistic to it. Degradation may also lead to the formation of harmful elements that may cause pollution and deterioration. An example can be the degradation of plastic into microplastics. 

What is biodegradation? (7 examples of biodegradable waste) 

Biodegradability is defined as the microbial breakdown of waste into simpler substances so that the waste may become a part of nature again. 

You may wonder why this is important. The process of breakdown of waste into simpler substances is important because it reduces waste accumulation and assimilation. 

If there is waste accumulation, there will be negative impacts of the waste on the environment and human life. 

Some factors are essential for the biodegradation process. These factors may include 

  • Microbes
  • Aeration 
  • Sunlight 
  • Temperature 
  • Pressure 
  • Other external conditions 

You may think of biodegradability as a natural dustbin because it leads to waste segregation. If there is no biodegradability, there will be negative effects reciprocated to life and the environment. 

Based on biodegradability, there is a general understanding that waste may be categorised into two classes. One is biodegradable waste and the other is a non-biodegradable waste. 

Biodegradable waste is the type of waste which may be degraded by the action of microbes. There is a general rule of thumb that products and substances made from natural sources like plants and animals are included in the list of biodegradable waste. 

Whereas, products and substances made from non-natural materials can not be broken down by the action of microbes and enzymes. These products are thus included in the category of non-biodegradable waste. 

Examples of biodegradable waste may include: 

  • Plant waste
  • Animal waste
  • Manure
  • Compost 
  • Natural fabric
  • Bioplastics 
  • Natural resins 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include: 

  • Synthetic polymers
  • Plastics such as PET, LDPE, HDPE, PVC et cetera
  • Synthetic fabric such as rayon or polyester
  • Synthetic chemicals like DDT or agrochemicals 
  • Nylon 
  • Dyneema

What will happen if there is no biodegradation?

Biodegradation is an important process and it is necessary for our survival as a species. If there is no biodegradation, there will be no check on waste generation. To understand this, let us imagine an analogy. 

Consider that for some reason you are unable to dump your waste away from your house. The waste remains inside the house. In some days, you won’t be able to segregate and contain the waste. 

In a matter of months, the waste will pollute every area of your house. In conclusion, your house will become unlivable. The same is the case for biodegradation and our earth. 

If there is no degradation of waste, there will be an inevitable decapitation of our ability to survive and thrive. There will be no place to dump the waste. The waste management systems will collapse. 

The problem is not just the accumulation of waste but the related environmental and health-related anomalies that will strike down as a by-product. It is prognosticated that there will be countless negative impacts of non-biodegradable waste. 

Some of them may be assessed as an example. There are a lot of known impacts of non-biodegradable waste which may include: 

  • Waste accumulation 
  • Ozone depletion 
  • GHG emission
  • Global warming 
  • Soil erosion
  • Deforestation 
  • Destruction of habitats 
  • Loss of life
  • Disruption of ecosystem 
  • Infiltration into the food chains

It is also argued that the effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment but are also expanded to life and human health. Below are some of the common negative impacts of non-biodegradable waste on life and human health:

  • Organ damage
  • Hormone disruption 
  • Lung dysfunction 
  • Cancer
  • Developmental issues
  • Neuro Complications 
  • Necrosis 
  • Damage to the foetus 
  • Behavioural issues and complications

What is degradation?

As expressed, degradation is similar to biodegradation but there are some stark discrepancies and because of those, the former is given a discrete terminology. 

Degradation is the breakdown caused mostly by chemicals. A common example will be the degradation of plastic into microplastics. 

Those who know about microplastics will also know that there are many adverse impacts of microplastics on the environment and life in general. 

Therefore, it can be inferred that degradation may not always yield a positive outcome as is the case for biodegradation. 

In terms of duration, degradation may take much more time as compared to biodegradation. To put this into perspective, consider the following example. Bioplastics (a biodegradable substance) may break down in 3 years but conventional plastics (a degradable substance) may take up to a thousand years to degrade.  

It is claimed that degradation may also happen without the presence of oxygen since there are no microbes or enzymes involved. 

What is composting and how does it enter the picture?

You may wonder what is the role of composting in all of it. Well, composting is a process that also has uncanny similarities yet significant differences with biodegradation and degradation. 

Composting is the process of converting organic waste into natural fertiliser which may be used as an alternative to synthetic, chemical-based fertilisers. 

Compost is simply decaying organic matter. Compost is assumed to improve the soil’s organic content thus leading to better soil fertility. 

It is even claimed that composting will lead to increased water retention profiles. Thus, composting can directly be linked to water conservation and environmental sustainability while also giving a positive nudge to the economy. 

The process of composting is very similar to that of biodegradation because both processes involve breakdown. However, there are differences as well.

All compostable material may be biodegraded but all biodegradable material can not be composted. This is mainly because there are certain requirements for composting that include:

  • The material should have organic content (like plant waste) 
  • The material should be non-toxic 
  • The material should not lead to emissions or discharge of harmful gases or elements

These conditions are not necessary for biodegradation and therefore, composting is more specific yet more rewarding than biodegradation. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that degradable and biodegradable are not the same. Biodegradation is the breakdown by the action of microbes and enzymes whereas degradation happens mostly chemically and does not include the action of enzymes and microbes. 

Degradation is a time-consuming process and may take hundreds of years to complete. The end product of the degradation process may also lead to a discharge of toxic pollutants. 

Biodegradation may happen in some days to a few years. Generally, there are no harmful effects of the biodegradation process. However, there are some exceptions present such as hydrogen sulphide. 

Composting is the conversion of dead organic matter into compost which may be used as a natural fertiliser to improve soil organic content and water retention profiles. 

There is a lot of similarity between composting and biodegradation. However, owing to some differences, not all biodegradable materials can be composed. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is degradable the same as biodegradable?

How much time composting may take?

Composting may take from 12 months to 2 years. Based on external factors and the type of composting (hot or cold), the duration may vary. 

What enzymes result in biodegradation?

A common example will be Alkane Hydroxylases (AH) which are used by bacteria to degrade. 

References

  • Hawkins, W. L. (1984). Polymer degradation. In Polymer Degradation and stabilization (pp. 3-34). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  • Lai, Y. Z. (2000). Chemical degradation. Wood and cellulosic chemistry, 443-512.
  • Sivan, A. (2011). New perspectives in plastic biodegradation. Current opinion in biotechnology, 22(3), 422-426.
  • Alexander, M. (1999). Biodegradation and bioremediation. Gulf Professional Publishing.
  • de Bertoldi, M. D., Vallini, G. E., & Pera, A. (1983). The biology of composting: a review. Waste Management & Research, 1(2), 157-176.
  • Stentiford, E. I. (1996). Composting control: principles and practice. In The science of composting (pp. 49-59). Springer, Dordrecht.

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