Is fertilizer biodegradable? (9 types of nutrient elements)

This article shall look into the biodegradability of different types of fertilizers.

It shall also cover other areas such as:

  • Components of fertilizers.
  • Types of fertilizers.
  • Applications of fertilizers.
  • Fertilizer’s effects on the environment.

Is fertilizer biodegradable?

Yes, fertilizers acquired from organic materials such as manure from animal wastes and compost from vegetables and other plants are biodegradable.

Inorganic fertilizers such as NPK contain simple elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, calcium, etc which can not be broken further into simpler particles, and therefore they are non-biodegradable.


Biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by water, oxygen, light, radiation, bacteria, and fungi.

Biodegradation breaks down naturally occurring substances into small biomass and other products such as methane and carbon dioxide gases.

Some of the biomass becomes part of the soil, enriching the soil fertility, while some are assimilated by the bacteria and fungi to be used in their body systems.

Bacteria and fungi produce different products on biodegradation, depending on their enzymes or the chemical constituents of the substances being degraded.

Adhesives are also broken down into small matters depending on their chemical structure.

Another determinant for the products of biodegradation is the type of biodegradation that is taking place.

Aerobic biodegradation: this involves the breakdown of substances by bacteria or fungi in the presence of oxygen.

The gas produced in aerobic biodegradation is carbon dioxide.

Anaerobic biodegradation: this is the breakdown of substances in the absence of oxygen.

The bacteria or fungi use other gases like methane in place of oxygen.

The gas produced in this type of biodegradation is mainly methane which is used by the microorganisms for respiration.

Aerobic biodegradation occurs at a much faster rate than anaerobic respiration, on the other hand, anaerobic respiration is more efficient and thorough than aerobic respiration.

The following are the materials that can undergo biodegradation.

  • Human waste.
  • Paper waste.
  • Animal waste.
  • Dead animals.
  • Dead plants.
  • Waxes and oils 
  • Organic alcohol.
  • Organic acids.
  • Natural rubbers.

Advantages of biodegradation.

Biodegradation has several advantages which include the following:

  • It cleans the environment of the wastes.
  • Applicable to a wide range of products.
  • It can be triggered through composting
  • It is cost-effective.
  • Results to soil enrichment with nutrients.
  • Used to produce bioenergy.
  • Biodegradation through fermentation has led to the manufacturing of drugs.
  • It leads to the production of organic acids and alcohol.

Disadvantages of biodegradation.

Biodegradation has several disadvantages which include:

  • This leads to wear and tear of organic-based materials such as clothes.
  • It takes a very long time to degrade waste.
  • When used to produce bioenergy, it requires a lot of biomass.
  • It is easily affected by contaminants such as oil and antibiotics.
  • It is only limited to organic matter.

What is fertilizer?

A Fertilizer is any material that is added to the soil, water, or in the plant’s tissue to replenish the plants with essential nutrients.

Fertilizers can be organic or inorganic, depending on the form of synthesis and the material used.

Synthetic or inorganic fertilizers are chemically produced in the industries and it involves using simple elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

The fertilizers are mostly found in the compound salts that contain several elements, such as magnesium nitrate which is a source of magnesium and nitrogen, potassium sulfate which is a source of potassium and sulfur, and ammonium sulfate which is a source of nitrogen and sulfur.

Organic fertilizer is acquired from different sources, either plants or animals. They include:

  • Compost manure that is mostly from vegetables and some animal wastes.
  • Animal manure from animal wastes.
  • Human manure from human wastes.
  • Industrial by-products such as blood meal, fish processing waste, animal slaughter, and cereal processing.
  • Harvest wastes in the form of crop remnants.

Classification of inorganic fertilizers.

Inorganic fertilizers can be categorized based on their chemical constitution.

Straight fertilizers.

These are inorganic fertilizers that contain only one elemental nutrient. They are also called simple or single-nutrient fertilizers.

They include:

  • Nitrogen-based straight fertilizers such as urea, ammonium nitrate, and ammonia.
  • Phosphate-based straight fertilizers such as single superphosphate, and triple superphosphate.
  • Potassium-based fertilizers such as muriate of potash.

Compound fertilizers.

These are fertilizers that contain two or more elements. They are also called multi-nutrient or complex fertilizers.

They include:

  • Binary fertilizers- these are fertilizers that have 2 elements such as NP for nitrogen and phosphorus, NK for nitrogen and potassium, and PK for phosphorus and potassium.

monoammonium phosphate for nitrogen and phosphorus, diammonium phosphate for nitrogen and phosphorus.

  • Complex fertilizers contain more than two elements. Examples include NPK fertilizers that have nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Classification of fertilizer elements.

Fertilizer elements are the nutrients contained in a fertilizer.

They are classified into:

Macro essential elements.

These are nutrients that are required in large quantities by the plants.

They include:

  • Carbon
  • Hydrogen 
  • Nitrogen 
  • Oxygen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium.
  • Calcium.
  • Magnesium.
  • Sulfur.

Micro essential elements.

These are nutrients that are needed by plants in small quantities.

They include:

  • Molybdenum.
  • Boron.
  • Chlorine.
  • Copper
  • Iron.
  • Nickel.
  • Cobalt.
  • Sodium.
  • Silicon.
  • Manganese.
  • Zinc.

Functions of macro elements.


This is the backbone of almost every plant molecule such as vitamins, lipids, protein, and carbohydrates.

Carbon is acquired by plants from carbon dioxide and fixed through the dark stage of photosynthesis to form sugars.


Hydrogen, much like carbon, is used in the manufacturing of biomolecules.

It is also acquired from water through photolysis in the dark stage.


Oxygen is used in the synthesis of plant biomolecules.

It is also used in aerobic respiration in the breakdown of sugars to form energy.

Oxygen is acquired from compounds such as carbon dioxide, oxygen gas, sulfates, nitrates, and water.


Nitrogen is used in making biomolecules such as cell membranes, proteins, chlorophyll, DNA, and RNA.


Phosphorus is used to form structures such as cell membranes, nucleic acids; DNA and RNA, and fatty phospholipids and is also used in the manufacturing of energy in the form of ATP.


This element is used as an enzyme activator for the metabolism process, it controls turgor pressure hence controlling the opening and closing of stomata.

Potassium helps in the coloration of fruits.


Sulfur is used to manufacture some amino acids such as cysteine and methionine, and also in the making of vitamins.

It is essential for nitrogen- fixation by rhizobium bacteria.


This is a major constituent of the cell wall. It helps in keeping the plants firm.

It helps in root formation, cell division and elongation, enzyme activation, and also helps uptake of other elements.


Magnesium is the central part of chlorophyll and so it helps in photosynthesis.

It also activates some plant enzymes.

Functions of microelements.

Most of the microelements are enzyme cofactors and activators and therefore they help in plant metabolism.

Some elements such as iron and boron supplement the activities of macro elements such as calcium.

Nutrient deficiencies.

The deficiency of plant nutrients has different effects on plants.

  • Stunted growth is caused by nitrogen, boron, and phosphorus deficiency.
  • Leaf chlorosis is caused by a deficiency of magnesium and phosphorus.
  • The curling of leaves is due to a deficiency of calcium and boron.
  • Interveinal chlorosis and necrosis are caused by potassium deficiency.
  • Defective roots are due to a deficiency of calcium and phosphorus.

Is fertilizer eco-friendly?

Yes, fertilizers are eco-friendly, but it all depends on how they are handled.

Fertilizers lead to nutrient balance of the soil and therefore healthy plants into the ecosystem which is a source to animals.

According to a study report on manure fertilizer, organic fertilizers are biodegradable and produce carbon dioxide and water. When carbon dioxide is in excess, it affects the ozone layer and hence global warming.

When fertilizers are swept into water bodies, they cause eutrophication, leading to uncontrollable growth of algae and aquatic plants and this may lead to the death of their aquatic life due to competition for oxygen.

Some elements such as boron and copper are toxic to plants and animals when they are in excess concentration.


The article has answered the question, “is fertilizer biodegradable?”

It has also covered other areas such as:

  • Types of fertilizers.
  • Categories of nutrient elements.
  • Importance of different plant nutrients.
  • Deficiency impacts of nutrients.
  • Eco-friendliness of fertilizer.

For any questions or comments please use the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): is fertilizer biodegradable?

Is fertilizer harmful to the environment?

Fertilizer does not cause any harm to the environment when used properly, however, when misused or used in high concentrations, it may cause toxicity to plants and may also affect aquatic life.

What is an example of biodegradable?

Biodegradable materials are those which are organic. They include organic fertilizer, kitchen waste, human waste, food leftovers, and dead plant tissues.

Is fertilizer biodegradable or non-biodegradable?

Organic fertilizer is biodegradable because it is formed from organic human and plant wastes.

Synthetic fertilizer is non-biodegradable because it contains chemical elements in its simplest forms and can’t be broken further.


Hillel, Daniel (2008), “Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition”, Soil in the Environment, Elsevier, pp. 151–162, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-348536-6.50016-2, ISBN 978-0-12-348536-6, retrieved 2021-04-08

Glass, Anthony (September 2003). “Nitrogen Use Efficiency of Crop Plants: Physiological Constraints upon Nitrogen Absorption”. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. 22 (5): 453–470. doi:10.1080/713989757.

Emerson M. Bengtssonn J. (2016). Large scale ecology: model systems to global perspectives. A topic on inorganic fertilizers.

Retrieved from:

Leave a Comment