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What Does It Mean for a Product to Be Biodegradable?

What does biodegradable actually mean? We break down the facts, including how biodegradable products break down and how to dispose of them.

Written by
Briana Dodson

Eco-friendly products are becoming more readily available. But while knowing which products to buy is becoming easier, understanding how to dispose of those products in an environmentally-friendly fashion presents a new set of challenges. Especially when there are so many labels to decipher.

Identifying some of the most common phrases—including compostable and biodegradablecan help ensure you're disposing of waste properly. In this article, we're going to break down the meaning behind biodegradable—pun intended.

What Does 'Biodegradable' Mean?

Biodegradable means something is capable of decomposing naturally by bacteria or other living organisms, such as fungi, with or without oxygen.

You're probably already using biodegradable products without even realizing it. Paper, for instance, is biodegradable in water, as it's made from plant materials. There's also a new wave of "biodegradable" products on the market—everything from coffee cups to cleaning supplies to packing peanuts. You've probably even seen biodegradable plastic products, like cutlery, at the store.

But here's something that may surprise you: Biodegradable products don't break down as easily as you would think. In reality, they require a specific environment in order to biodegrade properly.

How Do Biodegradable Products Break Down?

First thing's first: You now know biodegradable products can break down both with or without oxygen. But there's a big difference between the two methods.

When biodegradable products aren't disposed of properly, they wind up in landfills where they're buried under waste and are essentially stuck in limbo. Because they're buried under waste, the bacteria that breaks them down can't survive due to the lack of oxygen. Without enough oxygen, they must down through anaerobic biodegradation—a process that releases methane, which is extremely toxic for the environment.

A 2011 study revealed biodegradable plastic generates the most methane, followed by office paper, food waste, and newspaper. And, by no surprise, biodegradable plastic can be the most confusing of the bunch.

According to Stanford University, regular plastic doesn't biodegrade—it can eventually turn into tiny pieces, but that's it. Those little pieces can also be toxic. Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, can only be called "biodegradable" in the United States if 60% can be broken down within 180 days.

The problem? That can only be done in a commercial composting facility—a place that has the perfect balance of heat, moisture, and oxygen to break down these materials. Very few people have access to these facilities, as there are only 326 out of 19,000 municipalities in the United States that offer compost collection beyond yard waste pickup.

In addition, it's important to know biodegradable plastics can't be recycled. According to the EPA, they can contaminate and disrupt the recycling stream if they're mixed with other plastics.

The Reality of Biodegradable Products

Here's the truth: Biodegradable products are only beneficial to the planet when they're disposed of properly. That's easier said than done, as you can't just toss them in the trash. Even those popular biodegradable packing peanuts require you to dissolve them in water. Without that assistance, they won't break down properly.

Because biodegradable products generally require the help of commercial composting facilities to break down, the best thing you can do for the planet is focus less on biodegradables and more on high-quality reusables.

Instead of tossing "biodegradable" options out and hoping for the best, you'll have those reusables for years to come—and you'll drastically cut down on waste because of that.

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