Definition of Biodegradable

What Is Biodegradable?

Technically speaking, a biodegradable item is something that can be decomposed naturally by microorganisms and other biological processes. Biodegradable waste products can also be called green waste, food waste, or organic waste.When biodegradable products are exposed to nature, including oxygen and moisture, they break down relatively efficiently. Here’s an example of how long various biodegradable items take to break down naturally (assuming an adequate supply of oxygen and moisture):

  • Cardboard (unwaxed) – 3 months
  • Cigarette – 1-5 years
  • Cotton rope – 3-14 months
  • Newspaper – 2-4 weeks
  • Orange peels – 2-4 weeks
  • Paper – 2-5 months
  • Paper towels – 2-4 weeks
  • Wood (plywood) – 1-3 years

However, when biodegradable materials are thrown into a landfill where they are not subjected to natural decomposition (they’re deprived of oxygen and moisture), they break down very slowly and create methane gas in the process. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20+ times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and is therefore a significant pollutant when it comes to climate change.There are many items that would be considered non-biodegradable, and though they will eventually break down, the time it takes for this to occur is much longer. Consider, for instance, these items: 

  • Aluminum cans – 200 years
  • Diapers – 450 years
  • Fishing line – 600 years
  • Glass – 1,000 years
  • Milk carton (waxed) – 1-5 years
  • Plastic bags – 10-20 years
  • Plastic bottles – 700-1,000 years
  • Plastic six-pack holder – 400 years
  • Styrofoam cup – 50 years
  • Tin cans – 50 years

Most biodegradable materials also originate from renewable sources, such as trees, grass, food crops, and the like, making them more sustainable in the long term to produce.

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