What does biodegradable mean?

What is biodegradation? If we go by the literal definition as it is in the dictionary, it is a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution. But in an age where concerns about pollution are at the forefront of global politics, and the need for more bio-diverse/biodegradable products are in higher demand, it is imperative now more than ever to understand what is and isn’t biodegradable.


As consumers, we are regularly told how environmentally friendly what we’re buying is. We know the likes of glass and paper are readily recyclable, while plastics are the great bone of contention when it comes to pollution, helped in no small part by inconsistencies as to what plastic you can and cannot place in your recycling bin. But we all know that, should these substances be left out in the open, they will take many years to decompose. Wont they?


Take paper for example. It’s become a given that paper products, including cardboard, paper bags, and office paper, are not only environmentally but actively encouraged to be recycled. Obviously, recycling paper means less trees being cut down, but should you inadvertently discard some paper, say, on the side of the road, then don’t fret. Paper is surprisingly quick to decompose, with an average time of two to five months until it’s completely gone. Compare this to citrus fruits, like lemons and oranges, whose skins can take over six months to decompose. We should stress that we do not condone paper littering, but do not worry should that paper napkin get away from you.


Other durable products are not so quick. We all know how bad polystyrene is: it’s not easily recyclable, and literally takes hundreds of years to decompose. Yet even products that are literally made from items mined from the earth, like metal tins and glass, can be incredibly detrimental to the environment. Metal tins, the likes of soup or cola cans, can take up to one-hundred years to disintegrate, and these are just basic, small metal shapes. This doesn’t begin to cover the likes of cars, or other metal scrap, that is better to be melted down and reforged rather than left to the elements.

This doesn’t even cover the likes of plastic, which, like polystyrene, can take hundreds of years to decompose, if at all.


So, what can be done to help with tackling pollution caused by non-biodegradable materials? There are already initiatives underway to help with excessive waste, as well as technology being funded by big companies such as Virgin to help comb the seas of plastic. But going forward there are new materials being invented every day that can be produced in bulk while being carbon neutral and environmentally friendly.


Plant based plastics is the big one, where hemp is converted into a durable plastic as good as any you find today but will decompose at the rate of paper should it become litter. It is also completely sustainable, as it can be grown to demand quickly and cheaply. This can also be utilised to replace the wax that is used to coat paper cartons.


It is a big job to ensure that products are environmentally friendly. While it is up to companies to ensure their products are sourced from renewable sources, are carbon neutral, and generally environmentally friendly, it is also up to consumers to ensure they patronise such companies. So, next time you go to buy something, at a minimum, be conscious of whether the item or the packaging itself is good for the environment.

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