What Does Biodegradable Mean? (Biodegradable Meaning, Materials, & More Explained)

We hear many terms related to waste disposal, whether that be recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, or degradable (or something else entirely!), but what do they really mean? And which should we look for when choosing products to buy? Biodegradable is often used in a misleading way on many products on the market today, so let’s look at this term more closely.

Biodegradable Meaning/Definition

Biodegradable is defined as a product that can be decomposed by bacteria or other microorganisms through natural processes without causing any harm to the surrounding environment.

However, if something is biodegradable, that doesn’t mean that it will be fully broken down in a couple of days. In fact, something termed as ‘biodegradable’ can take anywhere between 6 months and hundreds of years to break down fully, depending on the product and the conditions.

Biodegradable vs Compostable

If a product is compostable, it will break down into non-toxic components, typically biomass, carbon dioxide, and water, to be reused in the earth without causing harm.

Although decomposition rates vary, it must fully break down within 6 months for a product to be called compostable. This means that compostable products take a lot less time to break down than biodegradable products and can therefore be seen as the most environmentally friendly process.

The main difference between biodegradable products and compostable products is that compostable products need to be in very specific conditions to break down, whereas biodegradable products will break down, eventually, in any condition.

It is important to note that, even if a product or packaging says it is compostable, you can’t simply throw it on your compost heap at home. Many of these products are only compostable on an industrial scale, so you will need to carefully read the disposal instructions. Although this is not the most ideal situation, it is a lot better than simply going into a landfill, and not everyone has access to a garden compost heap.

Biodegradable vs Degradable

The term degradable sounds like a good thing, but in fact, it’s really not. When it comes down to it, everything is degradable if given enough time. Some ‘degradable’ products can take hundreds, even thousands, of years to break down, and the worst thing is that they harm the environment in doing so, hence the omission of ‘bio.’

Plastic is the most talked-about ‘degradable’ product and one of the most environmentally harmful. Plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic when exposed to the natural elements over hundreds of years due to chemical additives used in manufacturing. These chemicals start a reaction that allows the plastic to break down slightly faster than if those chemicals weren’t present. Eventually, the product breaks down into micro-plastics, which pollute our oceans and enter our food chain, causing possible harm to our health and the environment.

The best way to think about it is this: a rock can be worn away, but it will simply form sand. A degradable piece of plastic is the same. It will degrade, but it will simply degrade into microplastics.

Which is the best to choose?

You should aim to choose compostable products and packaging where you can, and recyclable everything you use that says it can be recycled. Products labelled ‘biodegradable’ may not be as environmentally friendly as manufacturers would like you to think, so do your research. Companies with eco-friendly practices will tell you about it! In many cases, biodegradable products simply take too long to break down to actually benefit the environment, even if they are non-toxic.

Compostable means that, when disposed of correctly, they will no longer exist in that form within just 6 months or so. This is kindest to our environment and actually puts something back in, without leaving any toxic substances behind.

What are biodegradable materials? 

Biodegradable materials are those that can break down naturally without depositing toxins, although, unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. You will need to do your due diligence if you want to do your best by the Earth.

Compared to standard alternatives, truly biodegradable materials are much more eco-friendly, take less energy to manufacture, and reduces the amount of waste going straight to landfill. These are the materials you should look out for.

Great examples of biodegradable materials include cardboard and paper (especially that lack dyes and inks – though some companies use eco-friendly inks). Cardboard and paper are both recyclable and reusable and take a lot less time to decompose than other materials, which is definitely biodegradable.

What are biodegradable polymers?

Biodegradable polymers are plastics that are designed specifically to be allowed to be decomposed by bacteria and other microorganisms through natural processes. These are natural polymers, including starch and cellulose, which are renewable and readily available, as opposed to the alternative synthetic polymers, typically created using petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

There is an increased amount of research going ahead into discovering more natural polymers such as these, which can be used as an alternative to harmful plastics, thankfully putting us on the right track towards a more environmentally friendly world.

Is there such thing as biodegradable rubber?

As natural rubber (also known as latex) is a plant product, it is seen to be biodegradable. Yes, it will decompose, but it can still take weeks or possibly months to even begin to decompose.

However, the alternative is a synthetic rubber, created using man-made polymers containing petroleum. The manufacture of this type of rubber is harmful to the environment and is also likely to exist within the environment for a particularly long time after disposal, likely leaving behind toxic products.

The way we dispose of our waste is becoming increasingly important as people worldwide acknowledge their personal impact on the environment and our planet. Manufacturers need to take more responsibility for the products they are putting out there and begin to make crucial changes to the materials they use for both their products and packaging.

To ensure that we minimise our impact on the environment, all our packaging is made from FSC approved paper and 100% plastic-free and therefore completely sustainable. We even use vegetable inks to print directly onto our packaging, ensuring that the environment remains unharmed during recycling processes.