What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable?

The article will discuss the key discrepancies between biodegradable and non-biodegradable while also building a stance on which is more sustainable and what are the apt disposal options available. 

What is the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable?

Biodegradable substances can degrade by the action of microbes (readily) whereas, non-biodegradable substances will not degrade by the action of microbes. 

As a general rule of thumb, biodegradable substances contribute less to environmental problems since they are more likely to be natural, organic, compostable, and easily recycled. 

As regards disposal, the best option for biodegradable substances is composting (if they can be) while the best option for non-biodegradable substances is recycling as this prevents the negative effects of the said substances on the environment.

What is meant by biodegradable?

Biodegradable means the materials that can be broken down into simpler materials by the action of microbes. This leads to negation in waste accumulation and generation. 

When it comes to biodegradation, there are some general rules of thumb. One of them is that natural materials (specifically organic) are more prone to biodegradation because they offer the necessary nutrients that the microbes can ingest as food. 

As the name implies, biodegradation can be understood by delving into two major terminologies. One is ‘bio’ and the other is ‘degradation’. As you can guess, biodegradation is the breakdown of materials by the action of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, decomposers et cetera. 

The microbes do require something in return and that is their food in the form of nutritional contents. This is the primary factor that discerns biodegradable material from non-biodegradable material. Examples include:

  • Natural fibres like cotton or silk 
  • Fruits 
  • Food waste 
  • Animal waste 
  • Plant waste 
  • Vegetables 

What are non-biodegradable substances? (7 examples) 

After discussing biodegradable materials, it will be fairly simple to understand the content and context of non-biodegradable materials. 

These materials are not naturally-derived but are rather sourced from synthetic materials or are a by-product of lab procedures and commercial chemicals. 

Also, it is generally thought that products derived from fossil fuels such as petroleum are also not biodegradable and contribute to environmental anomalies. 

These materials have no organic content to offer to the microbes and as a result, they may remain for hundreds of years in the system. 

Let us also explore the examples of non-biodegradable materials to further our understanding of these non-biodegradable materials. 

  • Nuclear waste 
  • Chemical waste 
  • Plastics (synthetic polymers) 
  • Synthetic fibres (rayon, viscose et cetera) 
  • Hazardous substances 
  • Waste from hospitals 
  • Waste from research labs 

Which is more sustainable: biodegradable substances or non-biodegradable substances?

The stance is clear. Biodegradable waste is more eco-friendly and sustainable as compared to non-biodegradable waste because of the following reasons:

  • Biodegradable substances are naturally-derived 
  • Biodegradable substances contribute less to environmental anomalies 
  • Biodegradable substances contribute less to waste accumulation 
  • Depletion of non-renewable resources 

Naturality-derived

Biodegradable substances are regarded as more sustainable than non-biodegradable substances because of some basic reasons. The most prominent one is that biodegradable materials or substances are made from natural materials whereas this factor is absent in non-biodegradable materials. 

Environmental anomalies 

On the contrary, non-biodegradable materials involve the use of synthetic materials, chemicals, and derivatives of fossil fuels. 

This leads to environmental anomalies such as greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, depletion of non-renewable resources, pollution, and deforestation– to name a few. 

Waste accumulation 

Another major reason why biodegradable substances are claimed to be more sustainable is that they do not contribute to the waste problem since the substances will degrade readily (from a week to some months to the max). 

Whereas, in the case of non-biodegradable materials, these materials will persist for indefinite periods. This will give rise to the waste problem since we already face grave situations when it comes to waste. 

As per the stats, the current waste generation stands at 2 billion tons. This is expected to rise up to 3 billion tons in the years to come. This means that an average person does (or will) make about 5 kgs of waste per day. 

It would not be wrong to say that non-biodegradable materials have a significant role to play in a situation like this. 

Depletion of non-renewable resources 

There is a general understanding that non-biodegradable substances are mostly sourced from non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and petroleum. This is another factor that makes non-biodegradable substances unsustainable. 

This is said because not only do non-biodegradable substances contribute to the depletion of non-renewable resources, but they also lead to emissions of harmful gases into the atmosphere that results in environmental problems discussed above (including global warming, pollution, smog formation, deforestation et cetera). 

What is the difference in terms of disposal?

In terms of disposal, biodegradable materials are considered better since there are more options available that include composting. In the case of non-biodegradable materials, the best option is to recycle the non-biodegradable material so that nature is not harmed by its detrimental effects.

As regards recycling, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable can be recycled; but it is argued that recycling biodegradable material can be easier as compared to non-biodegradable material. The key difference will be composting which is elucidated below. 

Which can be composted: biodegradable substances or non-biodegradable ones?

Although the exact answer to this can not be given unless the substance (to be composted) is scrutinised, there is a general understanding that biodegradable substances are more likely to be composted as compared to non-biodegradable substances. 

The major reason behind this is that composting can only be done on substances that have a good amount of organic content in them. Now, if we determine the case of biodegradable materials, we can recall that most biodegradable materials are made from natural materials, and therefore, the chance of organic content in biodegradable materials is higher as compared to non-biodegradable materials. 

Composted can be done through the following steps: 

  • Select a suitable place for composting. It should be spacy and accessible enough
  • Make your compost pile. Add all the compostable material such as  bagasse, paper et cetera
  • Be sure to make a good amount of heap. Depends on both brown and green matter. These will act as a source of carbon and nitrogen. Make alternate layers with a layer of soil. 
  • Be sure to continuously mix the heap and provide the necessary external conditions such as shade and temperature. 
  • Wait until the composting process is complete. 
  • Once it is complete, utilise the compost well so that your garden may be benefitted well 

Conclusion 

Biodegradable substances can degrade by the action of microbes (readily) whereas, non-biodegradable substances will not degrade by the action of microbes. 

As a general rule of thumb, biodegradable substances contribute less to environmental problems since they are more likely to be natural, organic, compostable, and easily recycled. 

As regards disposal, the best option for biodegradable substances is composting (if they can be) while the best option for non-biodegradable substances is recycling as this prevents the negative effects of the said substances on the environment.

References

  • Bulkeley, H., & Askins, K. (2009). Waste interfaces: biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice. Geographical Journal, 175(4), 251-260.
  • Sonesson, U., Björklund, A., Carlsson, M., & Dalemo, M. (2000). Environmental and economic analysis of management systems for biodegradable waste. Resources, conservation and recycling, 28(1-2), 29-53.
  • Velvizhi, G., Shanthakumar, S., Das, B., Pugazhendhi, A., Priya, T. S., Ashok, B., … & Karthick, C. (2020). Biodegradable and non-biodegradable fraction of municipal solid waste for multifaceted applications through a closed loop integrated refinery platform: Paving a path towards the circular economy. Science of the Total Environment, 731, 138049.
  • Bhansali, Rohan. (October 11, 2022). An Overview of Non-Biodegradable Waste Management and Solutions. Retrieved from: https://organicabiotech.com/an-overview-of-non-biodegradable-waste-management-and-solutions/

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