What is biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastic? (9 examples)

In this article, biodegradable and nonbiodegradable plastics will be detailed. Other topics covered would be: 

  • What is biodegradability?
  • Why is biodegradability important?
  • What are the impacts of non-biodegradable waste?
  • What are non-biodegradable plastics?
  • What are biodegradable plastics?
  • Are biodegradable plastics eco-friendly?
  • FAQs

What is biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastic?

Non-biodegradable plastics are conventional forms of plastics that are made from fossil fuels (such as crude oil) employing the polymerisation process. 

Biobased plastics are biodegradable as well and are made from plant sources such as corn starch and sugar cane. 

While bioplastics are biodegradable, they may still not be eco-friendly owing to unsustainable ways of production and toxicity to the environment, as laid out by contemporary research. 

What is biodegradability? (9 examples of biodegradable products) 

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 

Why is biodegradability important?

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 to answer 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. More than 40% of the produced waste is not discarded properly and is disposed of in open dumps. 

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 rises, more and more people and producers are shifting towards sustainability and eco-friendliness. 

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 non-biodegradable plastics? 

Conventional plastic is a very important example of non-biodegradable waste and perhaps the most significant too. The issue of plastic contamination and plastic accumulation has taken the entire world into its grip.

It is synthesised in the lab through the polymerisation process often using fossil fuels like crude oil. 

The use of plastic dates back to the start of the 20th century; however, the use was increased by manifolds after the second world war. The world recognised the importance of plastic as its uses ranged in all fields and all sciences. 

With increased consumerism, more plastic started to be used or perhaps misused. It is cited that a single plastic bag may be used for a span of some minutes to several hours yet it takes almost forever to degrade it. 

Regardless of the negative impacts of plastic, it is still used in many parts of the world largely because it is cheap and is of good use. Statistics reveal that single-use plastics amount to almost half of the total plastics production. 

As per the stats, the production of plastic is expected to rise to up to 1000 million tons by as early as 2050. However, this production figure was less than 3 million back in the 1950s. This exemplifies the extreme misuse of plastic. 

This increased use does a lot of harm to the environment at all levels. Much non-biodegradable plastic (around 8 million tons every year) ends up in the oceans which leads to the death of millions of aquatic animals and thus disrupts the food chains. 

The plastic that ends up in the seas and oceans is converted to microplastic by sunlight, wind and water waves. This microplastic is accumulated in literally every corner of the world. It may be reiterated that plastics may take more than 400 years to break down. 

It is reported that as many as 700 species have been affected by plastic either through consumption or entanglement. The consumption of plastic results in the death of animals. The consumption of plastics also causes liver damage and reproductive complications in animals.

What are the impacts of non-biodegradable plastic?

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 

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 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 that may require hundreds of years to degrade.

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. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that both biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastics are present. Non-biodegradable plastics are conventional forms of plastics that are made from fossil fuels (crude oil et cetera) employing the polymerisation process. 

Biobased plastics are biodegradable as well and are made from plant sources such as corn starch and sugar cane. 

While bioplastics are biodegradable, they may still not be eco-friendly owing to unsustainable ways of production and toxicity to the environment, as laid out by contemporary research. 

Frequently Asked Questions: What are biodegradable and non-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. 

Does plastic contain BPA?

No, bioplastic does not contain BPA which disrupts the hormonal equilibrium. 

References

  • Halden, R. U. (2010). Plastics and health risks. Annual review of public health, 31, 179-194.
  • Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., & Kosior, E. (2009). Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1526), 2115-2126.
  • Andrady, A. L. (Ed.). (2003). Plastics and the Environment. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Havstad, M. R. (2020). Biodegradable plastics. In Plastic waste and recycling (pp. 97-129). Academic Press.

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