Biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials surround us. What makes a material truly biodegradable? Find out in our Plastic Blog today.
Biodegradable and non-biodegradable are two terms that are passed around frequently when people are talking about plastic products and waste. However, not everyone fully comprehends what these terms mean and how they influence sustainable practices and manufacturing.
What Does Biodegradable Mean?
The basic scientific meaning of biodegradability is as follows: it is the capacity of a material for biological degradation. When living organisms such as fungi and bacteria are capable of acting upon a given material to break it down through consumption and metabolism and turn the material into decomposed biomass, we can say that the material is biodegradable.
A material is considered biodegradable when natural processes can eventually break it down into what we call constituent substances or base substances such as biomass, elements (individual elements, as those that can be found on the periodic table), methane, carbon dioxide, and of course, H2O or water.
What Is the Meaning of Non-Biodegradable?
Material that cannot be broken down into constituent parts is considered non-biodegradable. There should be some clarifications in the context of plastics and the various types of plastics that are being produced now for the world market. Some manufacturers are saying that Oxo-biodegradable plastics are safe because they seem to break down like organic materials. There is a huge controversy over this because Oxo-biodegradable materials do not break down to base substances like water and carbon dioxide.
Manufacturers can twist biodegradability’s meaning by claiming that their plastic can also degrade like banana peels and other organic matter. This is not true unless the plastic has passed international and EU standards for biodegradability.
We know that this can be confusing, so we must create some boundaries with the definitions. An Oxo-biodegradable plastic bag is not the same as a compostable bag.
An Oxo-biodegradable plastic bag is more of conventional plastic or polymer with additives. These additives aid the physical breakdown of the plastic. It sounds good in practice until you realize that physical breakdown is different from chemical breakdown, which is the hallmark of true biodegradable plastics.
Oxo-biodegradable bags only get smaller and smaller as the physical structure shatters due to aging, but the polymerization at the molecular level is resistant to breaking. In short, this type of polymer offers little benefit compared to traditional plastics.
Compostable polymers, on the other hand, are different. They break down into base substances and can be used for composting. These plastics will not poison the earth, either.
Is Plastic Biodegradable?
Bioplastics can be biodegradable if they are designed to degrade over time. For the most part, the plastic used in manufacturing in different industries is not biodegradable and cannot be easily broken down by nature.
Why is there a huge concern about plastics in our environment? Apart from the risk, it poses to marine life, there are also some severe risks to human life.
The most alarming perhaps is what experts call “direct toxicity.” Since plastics are made from thousands of compounds, some of these compounds can cause health problems to humans as we contact these plastics.
We can absorb these toxins through ingestion or skin exposure and plastics off-gas for months after they are manufactured. Some of the most toxic elements found in ordinary plastic include mercury, cadmium, and lead.
Lead is exceedingly common in household objects like toys and tools. The dyes used on plastic and the paints often sprayed on the surface of plastic objects are also filled with lead.
There is also a risk of absorbing carcinogenic compounds in plastic if you use them for food. The compound DEHP has been linked to different types of cancer, and continuous exposure through ingestion poses a risk to people regardless of age and gender. Finally, there is a health risk of endocrine disruption.
Endocrine disruption can cause fatal issues with a person’s immune system, deformities in the fetus of pregnant women, birth deformations, etc. The risks of using plastic far outweigh the benefits. The only benefit that plastic can give humans is that it’s cheap to produce. However, in the process of exposure, we have to face severe health risks that may not even manifest immediately.
What Are Some Examples of Biodegradable Materials?
There are many kinds of naturally occurring biodegradable materials in nature. Animal remains, and parts and all materials derived from trees and smaller plant species are considered biodegradable.
Anything that grows from the earth and has life is considered biodegradable and will not harm the planet even after its processing and use for human activities and functions.
If you are using anything that has been produced from something that was once alive, there is no environmental impact, or there is very little impact, if at all. That’s the big difference between organic materials and inorganic materials. For the most part, inorganic materials are extremely problematic because nature takes a long, long time to break down these materials.
Here are some examples of biodegradable human waste:
- Fruit peels
- Vegetable peels
- Food waste (in general)
- Garden waste
- Animal parts and refuse
- Vegetable refuse and byproducts from food processing
Biodegradable plastic is one of the more recent developments in the current century that holds hope for us all. Biodegradable plastic or biodegradable polymers are chemically modified, so they would break down and eventually decompose into organic salts and different elements and compounds that will not harm the earth.
Compared to regular plastics that are non-biodegradable, these plastics only need twelve weeks or less to break down into stuff like water and carbon dioxide.
That’s how fast they break down. Green bioplastics, for one, are called compostable plastics because they literally can be transformed into safe composting materials after they have been degraded in an industrial facility designed for composting biodegradable and compostable plastics.