Biodegradable Explained: What You Need To Know


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According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in one year the U.S. accumulated 267.8 million tons of solid waste, which is 4.51 pounds per person every day, and only 35% of that is biodegradable or decomposed. What exactly does that mean though? What is biodegradable and decomposition?

This article is going to explain both of these in detail - Let's take a look.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

The Merriam Webster explains that biodegradable means a substance or object is decomposed by living organisms naturally and not in any way harmful to the environment.

So what exactly does that mean?

When a plastic bag is biodegradable, it will naturally break down over time and is returned to the earth as natural elements.

For a product to be considered biodegradable, it typically needs to be able to fully break down and decompose into the earth within a few years or less. Ideally, you want products to decompose back into natural elements without leaving behind harmful toxins, however, this isn't always the case.

What Does Decomposition mean?

Similar to biodegradable, decomposition is when materials are broken down and returned back into the earth naturally, but they also leave behind nutrients from being decomposed. 

So, when a product is labeled as decomposable, it is intended to quickly break down into natural elements within (typically) 90 days and leave behind rich nutrients for our earth.

Keep in mind that, when a plastic bag is compostable it is also biodegradable. However, not every plastic bag that is biodegradable is also compostable.

What Are the Levels of Decomposition?

When it comes to decomposition, it is broken down into 3 stages - We are going to use a plastic bag for our example.

Stage 1 - Aerobic

There are biofilms that typically coat a plastic bag. During the first stage of decomposition, microbes and moisture increase around the plastic bag. Oxygen is slowly converted into carbon dioxide.

Stage 2 - Anaerobic, Non-Methanogenic

During this stage, the microbes begin to grow and continue to eat away at the plastic bag. They begin making molecular spaces for more microbes. Acetogeesis begins and fatty acids transform into acetic acid, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen.

Stage 3 - Anaerobic, Methanogenic

At the final stage of decomposition, the microbes continue eating away at what's left of the plastic bag. The acetates are converted into methane and carbon dioxide. Eventually, over time, this will turn the plastic back into humus (a natural and nutritious soil).

Is It Regulated?

In order for a product to be labeled as compostable, it needs to meet certain standards. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM International) is responsible for setting the standards while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is responsible for enforcing and regulating those standards. 

Environmentally Friendly

Now that you understand the difference between biodegradable, decomposition, and how they work, its time to start going green. If you want to recycle plastic and save our good earth, using biodegradable and decomposable products is essential.

If you have any questions about being environmentally friendly or want to start using green products, start using our green trash bags!