What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants? (11 examples)

In this article, the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants will be assessed. Their examples and impacts on nature will also be elaborated on. Further topics covered would include: 

  • What is biodegradability?
  • What are the types of pollutants based on biodegradability?
  • What are the examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants?
  • What are the effects of non-biodegradable pollutants?
  • What are the effects of biodegradable pollutants?
  • FAQs

What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants?

The primary difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants is biodegradability. 

Biodegradability is the breakdown process of waste by microbes. Based on biodegradability, pollutants are classified as either biodegradable or non-biodegradable. 

Biodegradable pollutants may include manure, sewage, food waste, drywall mud et cetera. Non-biodegradable pollutants may include synthetic resins, synthetic polymers (PET, HDPE to name a few) and epoxies. 

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. 

Do you remember the last time you disposed of something in your trash bin? Have you ever wondered what happens after that? What is the fate of trash that ends up in your trash cans and then is taken away by waste management authorities? 

To understand this, the article invites you to an analogy. Imagine that for some reason you are unable to dispose of waste in your home or office. The situation may be manageable for some days but not very long.

Now, imagine that you can not dispose of the waste for several hundred years. The first thought that you will get is that your home or office will become unlivable. The same is the case for biodegradability and the earth. 

Biodegradability is the earth’s dustbin and earth is our home. If there is no biodegradability, there is no waste disposal. This will, eventually, steal our home’ capacity to sustain life. Results? Mass extinction and environmental degradations. 

What are the types of pollutants based on biodegradability?

Biodegradability is the earth’s natural way to eliminate waste by making sure that it gets back to the system. However, there has been corruption in this naturality as well. 

Regarding biodegradability, there is a general understanding that natural materials and natural waste are biodegradable. This is because it coincides with the code of nature. The microbes have no difficulty in breaking down the structures of this type of pollutant. 

On the other hand, we have the type of pollutants which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. This type of waste is mostly considered man-made. That is because microbes are unable to degrade the inner structures of synthetic materials and as a result, this type of pollutants may persist for hundreds of years. 

Do you remember the analogy of the last section? If you do, you will also remember that if there is an incapacity to biodegrade, then this means that nature’s capacity to sustain and promote life is being taken away. 

The same is the case with non-biodegradable pollutants. Non-biodegradable pollutants are known to cause a lot of harm to nature and man, other than being non-biodegradable. There is an endless list of these effects but some prominent ones can be cited. 

  • Soil leaching
  • Pollution
  • Soil erosion 
  • Greenhouse effect
  • Global warming
  • Deforestation
  • Unforeseen and unprecedented climatic anomalies 
  • Pest & insect attacks 

These are some of the effects to illustrate why biodegradable waste is important and needed. 

What are the examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants? (11 examples of non-biodegradable pollutants)

In this section, various examples of biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants will be covered to further our understanding of the concept and science of biodegradability. 

A biodegradable pollutant is that waste can be degraded by the action of microbes. This type of waste may degrade readily or may also take some months. 

As per some studies, biodegradable waste (like bio-plastics) may even take some years to degrade. Examples of biodegradable pollutants include: 

  • Waste from slaughterhouse 
  • Food waste
  • Plant waste
  • Animal waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage 

Non-biodegradable pollutants, on the other hand, can not be degraded by the action of microbes. It is mainly because microbes are unable to break the structures of this type of waste. 

It is generally perceived that materials that are synthesised in the lab from petroleum or fossil fuels are not biodegradable. The tragedy is that with increased commercialisation and consumerism, more such waste is generated which leaves us with unprecedented and grave issues. 

Synthetic polymers are regarded as the most common non-biodegradable waste. Other examples may include: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics like PET, HDPE, LDPE et cetera
  • Hospital waste 
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste

What are the effects of non-biodegradable pollutants on the environment? 

The non-biodegradable pollutants have a lot of negative impacts on the environment. Since these materials can not be degraded readily, they remain in the system for hundreds of years and affect the life and environment nearby greatly. 

The non-biodegradable pollutant, on land, exploits the property or characteristics of the medium that they are a part of. For example, if non-biodegradable wastes are part of a landfill, they may release toxic gases that can impact the soil, flora and fauna. 

Non-biodegradable pollutants may also lead to leaching and toxication of the soil making it hazardous for nearby plant life. They may also change the pH by the release of gases and chemicals. 

An example can be that e-wastes present in landfill release volatile gases and other greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. These gases are not only toxic but also lead to many detrimental phenomena like global warming. 

In water, non-biodegradable pollutants affect aquatic and plant life and result in the death of millions of fishes due to countless different reasons– all arising from non-biodegradable wastes. For example, many animals eat plastic confusing it with their prey and resultantly, they die. 

Non-biodegradable pollutants are known to affect as many as 800 species of the world. This waste may remain for up to a thousand years and cause a plethora of negative impacts on the environment and life. Some of them are pointed out below: 

  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Rise in temperature
  • A rise in sea levels
  • Melting glaciers
  • More floods
  • 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
  • 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

What is the effect of biodegradable pollutants on the environment? 

While the impact of non-biodegradable pollutants is extensively well-established in the literature, the effects of biodegradable pollutants on the environment are a question of increased curiosity. 

While the world at large knows that non-biodegradable pollutants are really harmful to life and the environment, it is questioned that does that mean biodegradable waste is safe and more importantly, eco-friendly.

The answer is no. The production of waste itself is a big challenge for man and more waste means greater problems. If biodegradable waste is produced in excess and not disposed of properly, it will not be eco-friendly.

There can be two sources that could form the accumulation of biodegradable pollutants. The degradable waste can be sourced from natural materials as well as man-made materials. 

The examples of biodegradable pollutants from natural sources have already been given in the previous sections. Examples of biodegradable waste that are from man-made sources can be epoxy resin or biodegradable plastics. 

While the impact of biodegradable waste that is sourced from nature is better understood (as it can degrade in some months), the case for biodegradable waste from synthetic sources is open to a lot of controversies. 

Regardless, the effects of biodegradable waste can also be harmful to the environment and life if the waste is not used and disposed of in balanced amounts and right ways. 

For example, cotton is biodegradable waste. However, if cotton is produced in really large quantities, this means that the handling of cotton waste would become difficult causing strain on the waste management authorities. 

More cotton production will also cause unsustainable stress on land used for cotton cultivation. The use of agrochemicals and other harmful fertilisers would also increase.  

Another example can be that of biodegradable drywall mud. Joint compound (drywall mud) can be degraded but this process releases harmful gases which are toxic to life and the environment. 

The sulphur in drywall mud leads to the release of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide. These gases are toxic to life and the environment causing acid rain, deforestation, lung dysfunctions, and eye irritation– to name a few. 

This example asserts that biodegradable waste can be harmful if not disposed of properly because it will still cause harm despite being biodegradable. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that biodegradability is the breakdown process of waste by microbes. Based on biodegradability, pollutants are classified as either biodegradable or non-biodegradable. 

Biodegradable pollutants may include manure, sewage, food waste, drywall mud et cetera. Non-biodegradable pollutants may include synthetic resins, synthetic polymers (PET, HDPE to name a few) and epoxies. 

The environmental and health-related impacts of both types of pollutants have been given due detail and scrutiny. However, both pollutants may cause great harm, and the scale of non-biodegradable pollutants is bigger because they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years. 

Frequently Asked Questions: What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable pollutants?

Which pollutant is more harmful: biodegradable or non-biodegradable?

Both types of pollutants may cause great harm, the scale of non-biodegradable pollutants is bigger because they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years. 

Are all plastics non-biodegradable pollutants?

Not all plastics are biodegradable pollutants. Bioplastics made from plant materials are biodegradable but may still act as a pollutant. 

References 

  • Hoornweg, D., & Bhada-Tata, P. (2012). What a waste: a global review of solid waste management.
  • Demirbas, A. (2011). Waste management, waste resource facilities and waste conversion processes. Energy Conversion and Management, 52(2), 1280-1287.
  • Bulkeley, H., & Askins, K. (2009). Waste interfaces: biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice. Geographical Journal, 175(4), 251-260.
  • Bharadwaj, A., Yadav, D., & Varshney, S. (2015). Non-biodegradable waste–its impact & safe disposal. Int. J. Adv. Technol. Eng. Sci, 3(1).
  • Innocenti, F. D. (2003). Biodegradability and compostability. In Biodegradable polymers and plastics (pp. 33-45). Springer, Boston, MA.

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