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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.

Materials cannot be partially biodegradable. They are either 100% biodegradable or not at all. Not everything that is biodegradable is compostable, as compostability aims for a stricter degree of soil health.

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


Companies may opt for biodegradable packaging to avoid materials like plastic which does not degrade for centuries. If packaging is to reinvent itself in the image of nature, there is no greater model than the banana peel, an organic shell that returns to the earth shortly after serving its purpose.

Why not choose it


Companies may not choose biodegradable materials if more lightweight options are available. Lightweight packaging has a lighter impact on shipping, and in turn, carbon emissions. Choosing truly biodegradable materials can also be a challenge because there are many cases of deceptive labeling and marketing.

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 life1.

If biodegradable materials enter a landfill and decompose in this anaerobic environment, they release methane2, a greenhouse gas far more potent that carbon dioxide. So proper communication about disposal and access to composting facilities is important.

Frequently asked questions
Is there a commonly recognized standard for biodegradable?

The FTC lays out a relatively coherent definition of biodegradable in its Green Guide in Section 260.83, and the standard U.S. government tests for biodegradability are ASTM 5338 for land 4 and ASTM 7081 for marine environments5.

What label adheres to these guidelines?

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

How should end customers best dispose of biodegradable materials?

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.