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Biodegradable

Breaks down into elements found in nature when exposed to light, air, and moisture.

Definition


Biodegradable materials break down into elements found in nature when exposed to light, air, and moisture. The core elements at the end of decomposition are carbon dioxide, water, naturally occurring minerals, and biomass. Bacteria, algae, and fungi are microorganisms that assist the biodegradation process.

Though this term is widely used, there is no scientific parameter for how long something has to biodegrade so it's misleading and often a sign of greenwashing. Materials cannot be partially biodegradable. They are either 100% biodegradable or not at all. The trouble is that many materials biodegrade and they do so at vastly different rates. So while a box takes a few months to biodegrade and a plastic bottle takes a few hundred years1, they are both technically biodegradable. 

B
Recovery

At the end of a product's life, some materials can be recovered or disposed of to minimize environmental impact.

Why choose it


Considering how long your packaging takes to break down is a good first step in understanding its impact on the planet. The following table shows how long different items take to decompose.

Vegetables

5 days – 1 month

Paper

2–5 months

Cotton t-shirt

6 months

Wool socks

1–5 years

Milk cartons

5 years

Leather shoes

25–40 years

Nylon fabric

30–40 years

Aluminium cans

80–100 years

Styrofoam cup

500-1,000 years

Plastic bags

500-1,000 years

Glass bottles

1 million years

Why not choose it


Because there are no scientific or legal parameters on the term "biodegradable," compostable is a better choice. Compostability is bound by the parameters of regulations and certifications, furthermore it requires that materials aid in the production of healthy soil as they decompose.

Without a defined length of degradation, biodegradability can be a red flag for greenwashing. For example a claim like “made with 60% biodegradable materials” may inspire consumer confidence, but the product still contains non-biodegradable materials that won’t break down. Also, some plastics that are technically biodegradable in composting facilities can be slow to biodegrade in marine environments, proposing a health risk to marine life2.

If biodegradable materials enter a landfill and decompose in this anaerobic environment, they release methane3, a greenhouse gas far more potent that carbon dioxide. So proper communication about disposal and access to composting facilities is important.

Frequently asked questions

The FTC lays out a relatively coherent definition of biodegradable in its Green Guide in Section 260.84, and the standard U.S. government tests for biodegradability are ASTM 5338 for land 5 and ASTM 7081 for marine environments6.

The BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) only issues a compostable label, not a biodegradable label. There is no standard U.S. biodegradable label.

Customers should recycle any paper-based biodegradable products. If unable to be recycled, look for the compostable label to ensure the product can be composted. Biodegradable plastics should be composted, not recycled, so long as they carry a compostable label.