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What does biodegradable mean?

Date Posted:10 January 2021 

Many companies are now looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint. One of the common ways they’re doing this is by using green alternatives like bioplastic or biodegradable packaging. But what exactly does that mean and can it really help end the plastic crisis?


What does biodegradable mean?

Biodegradable is used to describe something that can be broken down (decomposed) by bacteria or other living organisms like bugs or worms. This method of decomposing doesn’t produce pollution – unlike non-biodegradable products in landfills which don’t break down naturally and leach pollution when they are decomposed of. Examples of biodegradable things are fruits, vegetables, water, flowers and paper.

Biodegradable vs compostable

Biodegradable products will break down over time provided they are exposed to the right environment (exposed to oxygen, moisture and heat). Compostable materials break down quite quickly in a compostable environment and leave behind nutrient-rich organic material, creating healthy soil for the environment and plant growth. Sow 'n Sow compostable gift cards are a perfect example of compostable material. Nowadays, many brands are packaging their products in compostable packaging, which is packaging that’s made from organic matter like corn-starch, sugarcane, potato starch and others.

Bioplastic and biodegradable plastics explained

The trend towards more sustainable living has seen the rise of biodegradable packaging. Biodegradable packaging is packaging that’s made from material that breaks down naturally and without leaking pollution. Plastic remains an important material for packaging purposes, which is why surprising biodegradable plastic is now being used instead. Biodegradable plastic is made from natural plant materials such as corn starch. On average, a bag made of biodegradable plastic takes about 3-6 months to decompose, a huge contrast to the conventional plastic bag which take up to 1,000 years. Biodegradable plastic is an easy substitute where you still want convenience without the environmental impact. For example, you can use biodegradable bin liners instead of regular plastic ones or you can opt for biodegradable baby wipes instead of the usual ones. Sometimes biodegradable plastic can be made from the same fossil fuels as regular plastic, only with certain chemicals that have been added to make sure the packaging decomposes after a certain period. When shopping for bioplastic, compostable or biodegradable packaging, just be mindful of misleading labels.

How to dispose of biodegradable plastic
Although biodegradable packaging is an eco-friendly option, this largely depends on how it’s disposed of. When biodegradable packaging or biodegradable plastic is thrown in with regular rubbish and sent to landfills, it often gets buried. Beneficial bacteria and other living organisms can’t survive in a huge landfill or dump, which means the biodegradable packaging doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to break down. Without this oxygen, the biodegradable plastic will break down anaerobically (without oxygen) which causes a harmful greenhouse gas called methane. The best way to dispose of your biodegradable products is in a commercial compost heap or send them to a recycling plant. If you don’t have a compost of your own, there is likely to be a community or commercial compost in your local area.


How to dispose of compostable packaging

The other type of eco-friendly packaging is compostable packaging. The best, and really only, way to dispose of compostable packaging is in a compost heap. Compost heaps are rich in microorganisms and have high temperatures that helped the packaging break down easily. Compostable packaging, unlike biodegradable plastic, won’t break down in landfills. Compostable packaging can look like plastic or cardboard, but it shouldn’t be recycled. Compostable packaging can contaminate the recycling process.

Oxo degradable plastic

This class of plastic is broken down more slowly than biodegradable plastic. It is not completely dissolved in nature, meaning it leaves behind microplastics in the soil. Examples of oxo-degradable plastics are degradable plastic cutlery and straws, degradable plastic bottles and plastic wrap. Pearlbar Floss Picks handle, for example, is made with oxo-biodegradable plastic, which uses technology that converts products into biodegradable materials once they’re ready to be returned to the earth.


Are bioplastics better for the environment than other plastics?

It depends. When disposed of correctly, then biodegradable plastic is better than choosing regular plastic as you can be sure it’s not contributing to pollution and waste. That said, not everyone disposes of bioplastics properly, which means they can just as easily contribute to landfill. While choosing biodegradable packaging is a great way to do your bit, the amount of packaging our societies use as a whole remains a complex problem. That’s why it’s important to remain realistic when trying to live a sustainable life – do what you can. And if that’s switching out single-use plastic for biodegradable packaging, then great!  


Is paper biodegradable?

Paper is biodegradable because it is made from plant materials (wood), however, a paper that goes to landfills may not always fully decompose if it is not exposed to the right conditions. An eco-friendly approach is to recycle, as this reduces the need for the production of the new paper, reducing the number of trees that need to be cut down. Paper can be recycled up to 6-7 times before the fibres break down too much to be turned into paper.


Is cardboard biodegradable?

Cardboard is a natural material made from trees and takes about 2 months to biodegrade. Opting for a cardboard box to transport your groceries instead of plastic bags is a better use of biodegradable packaging since it can be composted or recycled. If the cardboard is covered in wax it will take longer to decompose. If the cardboard is ripped up, the fibres will break down quicker. Heat and moisture will also speed up the process of biodegrading. 


Is cotton biodegradable?

As cotton is a natural fibre it is biodegradable, taking around 2-5 months to decompose. A cotton blend material however may take longer depending on what the material is blended with. For example, a polyester-cotton mix material may take anywhere from 20 to 200 years to biodegrade. Choosing 100% natural organic fibres make the fabric an eco-friendly choice. 

More eco-friendly convenience items

Switching to reusable items is a great way to reduce waste and the need to produce new materials. However, they often require a level of organization, and while we may have the best of intentions, sometimes a busy schedule can see us opting for convenience over sustainability. This is where biodegradable products shine. There are just some plastic products that are hard to replace – any sort of plastic bag is one of them. That’s where biodegradable dog poop bags and biodegradable bin liners come in. You also might find there are biodegradable swaps for some of your favourite reusable products like biodegradable coffee cups. Using biodegradable coffee cups means you can enjoy café-quality coffee without environmental harm. While there are lots of biodegradable options for plastic products, there are also biodegradable alternatives for toiletries. Biodegradable baby wipes, for example, are a great option for eco-friendly mum. Biodegradable baby wipes let you have all the convenience of wet ones but without the landfill.