Defining Biodegradable: Products That Leave Nothing Behind - The Public Goods Blog Defining Biodegradable: Products That Leave Nothing Behind - The Public Goods Blog

Defining Biodegradable: Products That Leave Nothing Behind

Whether it takes a month or a millennia, everything we grow and manufacture will ultimately disintegrate into dust and return to the earth.

yellow sea sponge, rope

When defining which of these substances are biodegradable, scientists and public health officials usually examine the conditions necessary for deterioration to occur in what they consider a reasonable amount of time.

Typically these professionals define biodegradable objects as having a positive or neutral impact on an ecosystem. You could argue plastic is biodegradable because it eventually breaks down, but this process can take centuries. An apple, on the other hand, is something we can all agree on.

The basic rule is that something is biodegradable if it comes from nature and has not undergone an excessive level of artificial modification or processing. These substances will eventually decompose into carbon dioxide, water and others forms of organic material. For something like an apple, this process would most likely take a few months.

Biodegradable vs. Compostable: Getting Into Product Claims and Certifications

Composting is a form of biodegradability that transforms organic waste — such as food scraps and fallen leaves — into humus, a dark brown material that can supply soil with valuable nutrients. Unlike many biodegradable substances, something that is compostable is useful to the environment. If you want to try composting at home, check out this guide from the EPA.

Food and similar organic substances are inherently compostable, but the situation is not so simple for other products. The Federal Trade Commission [FTC] allows brands to label their products compostable if ‘‘all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost (e.g., soil conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting program or facility, or in a home compost pile or device.’’ In this case “timely manner” means at the rate of the surrounding materials in the compost pile.

When it comes to claims of biodegradability, the FTC stated that products should fully decompose within one year of disposal. Some of these products are compostable, even if they don’t carry that claim. If you are into composting, conduct some research on a case-by-case basis.

Companies that want to further substantiate the claim that their products are compostable can seek a certification from the Biodegradable Products Institute [BPI]. The BPI certification rules were written for people in the industry, not consumers. Nonetheless, we did find a code with a requirement that is relatively easy for everyone to understand: 90% of carbon in an item needs to be disintegrated within 180 days.

Products that are biodegradable but not compostable are still valuable. They may not be giving as much back to the earth, but at least they are taking up less space in landfills.

Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics

There are certain types of plastic products that are biodegradable and compostable. For example, at Public Goods we produce compostable plastic waste bags by working with Polyethics Industries, a BPI-certified manufacturer.

These types of products are made using hydrolyzable polymers, chemical compounds that degrade over a period of time when they come into contact with water, a key ingredient in composting. Unlike other types of plastics, they break down into elements the soil can absorb, and the process takes less than 180 days, not more than 1,000 years.

Municipal facilities and industrial companies compost these plastics by enveloping piles of compost under tarps at temperatures of more than 50 degrees celsius (that’s roughly 122 degrees fahrenheit). After about 150 days the compost becomes useable. Depending on the type of product, the facilities sometimes add warm water with a nutrient mixture to accelerate the decomposition process.

Do not try composting these plastics in your home. It’s much easier to donate them to the proper facilities.

Your Knowledge of Biodegradability Can Make the World More Sustainable

If you want to reduce the amount of waste that rots for decades in a landfill, the first step is to buy goods and products that are biodegradable (preferably compostable, too). Here are a few examples:

Homeowners can compost organic waste in their yards, and anyone can donate compostable materials to a local facility. These efforts add up to create a world that is more sustainable and better for everyone.

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