What is biodegradable?

In this article we will discuss what the term biodegradable means. We will also shed light on biodegradable materials, their impact on the environment, their examples, the origin of biodegradable materials, their longevity in nature, the methods to dispose them of and the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials.

What is biodegradable?

The term biodegradable means the characteristic of any material or substance which can be decomposed naturally by microbes and microorganisms and do not impact the environment negatively. 

A microbe or microorganisms are microscopic organisms found in the environment. They are present in the land, water and air. Most of the microorganisms found in the soil act as natural decomposers and decompose the organic substances found in the soil by secreting certain enzymes on them. Once decomposed these complex substances take the form of their chemical components and impact the soil effectively. 

What is biodegradable waste?

A biodegradable waste include substances and materials that can be degraded by natural factors such as: 

  • Temperature
  • Oxygen
  • UV radiation
  • Microorganisms

Biodegradable waste include food materials, waste from the kitchen and various other natural wastes such as animal feces or plants. Microbes along with temperature, oxygen and radiation break down these biodegradable substances into their simpler forms which eventually become a part of the soil. The process of biodegradation can be rapid or slow depending on the type of waste. The environmental risk posed by biodegradable waste is extremely less. 

Where is biodegradable waste found?

Biodegradable waste is commonly found in municipal waste and is commonly called green waste, paper waste, food waste and biodegradable plastics. Other types of biodegradable waste involve human waste, sewage, waste from slaughterhouses, and manure. 

What are biodegradable plastics?

Biodegradable plastics are products that can be decomposed by the microorganisms in order to produce natural end products that can benefit the environment instead of harming them. The time span required by the biodegradable plastics depends on environmental conditions such as temperature and moisture and location where the biodegradable plastics are being decomposed. 

Compostable plastics decompose much faster than the other biodegradable plastics and turn into humus. Biobased plastics are derived from plants and are of two types: 

  • Polyactide acid (PLA)
  • Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)

They are used in grocery bags, bottles, food packaging, cups, plates, food wraps, coating of the cardboard and paper and medical instruments. Cellulose acetate is derived from the plant’s cellulose and can be used as biodegradable plastic in the form of cigarette filters, photographic filters, films and coatings. 

Starch is also used as a biodegradable plastic and is gained from potatoes, maize, wheat and cassava. This type of plastic is used for packaging, tableware and flower pots etc. starch is also added to conventional plastic to make them biodegradable in nature.

What are different types of biodegradable plastics?

The biodegradable plastics are divided into two types: 

  • Oxo-biodegradable plastics: these plastics are biodegraded through the process of oxidation.
  • Hydro-biodegradable plastics: these plastics are biodegraded through the process of hydrolysis.

Both of the processes result in the physical disintegration of plastics and reduce their molecular weights followed by the process of biodegradation. Both of these biodegradable plastics are converted into carbon dioxide, water and biomass.  

How does the process of biodegradation occur?

The process of biodegradation is initiated by bacteria and fungi. These organisms release their enzymes in order to break down the substances. This process requires suitable and optimum conditions which include perfect temperature, moisture, type of soil, pH and oxygen level of the soil. Enzymes can be used to increase the rate of this biodegradation process.

Biodegradable waste is decomposed by the process of composting stimulated via microorganisms. However, the biodegradable waste needs to be managed properly. If they are not managed properly they will have an adverse impact on the environment. For instance production of landfill gas from methane emission from anaerobic fermentation. 

What are the advantages of biodegradable products?

Biodegradable products have a lot of advantages. These are: 

  • They can easily be composted or recycled which removes the chances of landfills.
  • Biodegradable products when degraded release less toxic gasses into the environment. 
  • The solid biodegradable products can be used as compost for the soil to increase its fertility. 
  • No energy is required to incarnate the biodegradable products as the process is carried out naturally by the microorganisms.
  • The quality of water and soil remains intact when biodegradable products are decomposed because no harmful toxins are released.  
  • They promote zero percent waste generation. During decomposition of biodegradable products new products are being generated at every stage and phase of the process.
  • They can increase the food production by being a viable fertilizer. This will yield a higher crop with no chemicals.
  • They are economically viable. 

Can biodegradable products be used to manage waste?

Yes, biodegradable products can be used to manage waste. With the raising of environmental awareness there has been a boom in the use of biodegradable products. However, the real benefits of biodegradable products remain unexplored. 

Biodegradable products are made from biodegradable polymers and they are treated in following ways: 

  • Recycling
  • Composting
  • Incineration to recover energy

Biodegradable products made from cellulose help in generating renewable energy. When compared to synthetic plastic products, biodegradable products can work as a compost. The process of composting is carried out naturally in order to attain carbon and nutrient rich compost for the soil. This also helps in managing waste at the same time.

The biodegradable products made put of plants and vegetable oil can be applied to different vegetables and fruits. This helps in preventing food waste. Several biodegradable products can be used to prevent the process of oxidation in fruits and vegetables which initiates the process of decomposition in them. 

Agriculture waste can be used to generate biofuel which is a prominent example of waste to energy conversion.

Are biodegradable products good for the environment?

Yes, biodegradable products are good for the environment. According to research, when biodegradable products are compared with non-biodegradable products they are less harmful to the environment. However, the process of biodegradation can be slower depending on the type of substance and environmental conditions. Some biodegradable products may take decades to decompose if the optimal environmental conditions are not met. 

What are the disadvantages of biodegradable products?

Despite being eco-friendly, biodegradable products have some disadvantages. These are: 

  • They can easily become chemically contaminated. Because pesticides are used for plants , the cellulose or starch that can act as biodegradable products can get easily contaminated. These chemicals when ingested are harmful to humans and animals. 
  • They are more expensive than non-biodegradable products. Because there is still a lack of technological advancements when it comes to the production of biodegradable products they are not cost friendly. The high cost prevents new ventures and discourages people from opting for biodegradable products.
  • They can act as breeding grounds for several disease vectors such as mosquitoes and flies. 
  • They can somewhat be dangerous to ocean life because the ocean is not hot enough to decompose the biodegradable products, especially biodegradable plastics. 
  • They may cause food scarcity. Because biodegradable products are derived from food sources, over consumption may lead to food scarcity. 
  • They can also release high quantities of greenhouse gasses. Landfills contain biodegradable products which may release methane gas. This methane gas can impact the environment negatively because it is not properly collected and stored. 

Frequently asked questions “what is biodegradable?”

What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable?

The difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable is that the biodegradable process is rapid, involves microbes and microorganisms, are used to produce energy and compost. The biodegradable substances are not accumulated in the environment and become a part of biochemical and biogeochemical processes happening in the ecosystem.

On the other hand, non-biodegradable process is extremely slow and does not involve microbes and microorganisms. The waste is often accumulated in the environment and is toxic for the biochemical and biogeochemical processes. Non-biodegradable waste can be separated but the process itself is extremely time consuming and expensive. 

How to reduce generation of waste?

Reduction of waste generation is necessary and the most effective way to decrease waste generation is reduce, reuse and recycle. By decreasing the amount of waste being generated there will be less accumulation of waste in the environment. This can be done by using paper packaging of products, utilization of paper napkins and buying things which are necessary.

Most of the items in our everyday life can be reused. By reusing them we can reduce the production of the waste. This can be achieved by reusing old clothes to make cloth bags or cushion covers, using old toothbrushes as cleaning brushes, juice bottles can work as water bottles and jars can be used as storage materials. 

Recycling is the best way to protect the environment and to reduce waste. Through recycling we can use plastic more frequently which on the other hand is prone to slow rate of decomposition. 

What is the difference between biodegradation and composting?

Biodegradation is a process which can occur anytime in the environment irrespective of the environment conditions. On the other hand composting is the process which is only carried out in specific environmental conditions. Compostable products are always biodegradable while biodegradable products are not always biodegradable. 

How will biodegradable products impact the environment if used frequently?

The impact of biodegradable products on the environment if used frequently will be positive. After undergoing decomposition, biodegradable products produce a number of raw materials which are returned to the ecosystem. The solid waste is converted into humus and is added to the soil. There can be somewhat negative impacts too, for instance the foul smell produced during the process of decomposition and possibility of acting as breeding grounds for disease vectors. 

Why should biodegradable products be separated from non-biodegradable products?

Dispose of biodegradable and non-biodegradable garbage in separate containers to ensure:

  • Collecting and trading separately
  • Treatment and disposal that works.
  • Prevent hazardous chemicals from forming during the mixing process.
  • Reduce pollutants and emissions in the environment.

Biodegradable garbage, for example, can disintegrate spontaneously, through the composting process. Non-biodegradable wastes, on the other hand, can be recycled.

Why are synthetic fibers referred to as non-biodegradable?

Synthetic fibers are fibers that have been created artificially. Plastic and other synthetic materials such as rayon, nylon, and acrylic, for example, are not blended with the soil and hence have major consequences.

Should plastic caps be discarded separately before recycling the plastic bottles?

Many consumers were previously urged to remove the caps and discard them in the trash before placing the bottle in the recycling bin. However, processing technology has advanced to the point where the recyclers now advise leaving plastic lids on containers as they are placed in recycling bins.

Bottles (with caps on) will be crushed into flakes before being washed at facilities with updated processing technology, and the cap flakes will be separated from the bottle flakes during a water bath float/sink operation, allowing both forms of plastic to be recovered and recycled.

However, because not all recyclers have technology that allows them to process bottles with caps still on,it is essential to  check with the local recycling facility to see what their policy is on bottle caps disposal.

References: 

  • Kalita, H., Mandal, M., & Karak, N. (2012). Biodegradable solvent-induced shape-memory hyperbranched polyurethane. Journal of Polymer Research, 19(10), 1-8.
  • Chait, J. (2021, March 23). What “Biodegradable” Really Means. The Balance Small Business. Retrieved from:
https://www.thebalancesmb.com/what-does-biodegradable-mean-2538213
  • Kinhal, V. Types of Biodegradable Plastics. Love to Know. Retrieved from: 
https://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/Type_of_Biodegradable_Plastic
  • Epidamin. (2020, May 19). What are the different types of biodegradable plastics?. Epi. Retrieved from: 
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780857097101500021

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