What “Biodegradable” Really Means


If you’re thinking of starting an environmentally-friendly company, you’ll need to be aware of whether your packaging or products can be biodegradableThis is a term that is widely used however, there’s lots of confusion over what it really signifies.

What is the definition of what it means to be biodegradable? In simple terms, it is as simple as If something can be biodegradable, then under the right conditions and presence of microorganisms and fungi or bacteria that it will eventually break down into its essential components and then blend back into the earth. In ideal circumstances, however, not all of the substances will degrade and not leave any toxic residue in their wake.

As an example, if the plant-based substance breaks into carbon dioxide, water, and other natural minerals, the product is dissolved back into the soil, leaving only toxic substances left behind. However, some materials — even those with biodegradable labels disintegrate in a destructive way, releasing toxic chemicals or other compounds in the soil.

Regarding environmental advantages, The most biodegradable material breaks down rapidly, instead of taking years to degrade. It doesn’t leave any harmful residue on the environment and conserves the landfill space. It’s true that not everything claimed to be “biodegradable” can meet these standards. If you’re looking to run an environmentally friendly business it is important to be aware of the ways to ensure the products you choose to use are biodegradable in a safe and efficient manner and are properly and clearly labeled.

What are the materials that can be biodegradable?

Certain materials are biodegradable. For instance, food waste, and wood that isn’t treated with chemicals in order to stop insects and rot. A variety of other materials like paper are also biodegradable in a relatively short time. Certain materials will degrade over time however, it could take several years. This is the case for steel products that will eventually be rusty and break down and certain plastics.

But, the conditions must be in place to promote biodegradability. Biodegradable products that are found in the natural environment or in your compost heaps in your home might not degrade in landfills in which there isn’t enough light, bacteria, and water to help move the process forward.

Biodegradable Compostable

Many organic businesses utilize biodegradable packaging to package their products or create organic products that are biodegradable, however, these products might not be as biodegradable as consumers believe. To make things more complicated, many products are labeled “compostable.”

Compostable items are all biodegradable and are designed for composting. If the environment is right the products will be broken down more rapidly typically within 90 days. In addition, they produce nutrient-rich organic matter called humus which provides an ideal soil ecosystem for the growth of new plants. 

If an item is compostable or biodegradable, it should be placed in a place that facilitates its breakdown. Compostable products require composting environments. However, some biodegradable materials must be processed in a controlled composting area or facility. Sadly, very few of these facilities are within the United States. These huge facilities are designed to keep the temperature of materials at 140 temperatures for 10 consecutive a period. 

For instance, PLA, a popular biodegradable material used by green companies is only able to decompose into carbon dioxide and water within a controlled environment for composting, unlike a composting backyard system in accordance with the standards set in the Biodegradable Products Institute. 3

With all these factors businesses must be clear with their customers regarding what they mean by “biodegradable.” Better still are the companies that go a step further by educating their customers on the proper disposal of their waste.

Biodegradable claims on Plastic in California

Companies that sell to or operate with customers from California will be given an additional incentive to be aware of these phrases. California has stricter rules pertaining to environmental claims for food and products (hence these warning labels that say items were “found in the California’s State of California to cause cancer birth defects, cancer, or any other reproductive harm”).

In the case of biodegradable claims, California is also leading the way by imposing regulations that limit the use of specific terms. For instance in California, it’s prohibited to market any plastic product or item that has plastic packaging that has the words “biodegradable,” “degradable,” “decomposable,” “compostable” or “marine degradable” (or any other variant of these terms).

It’s also illegal in this state of Delaware to sell a product that’s labeled “home compostable” (or any similar claim) in the absence of a Vincotte OK Composite HOME certificate. Vincotte is a Belgian-based inspection and certification company. In addition, the Belgian government prohibits the use of misleading terms in marketing for example “environmentally sustainable,” when they’re applied to plastic packaging and products. 4

Be aware of the terms you use.

No matter if you’re within California or not it’s important to be meticulous when planning for a sustainable company. In the end, words like “biodegradable” can only be relevant in the event that they help the environment. That’s what’s in the minds of many entrepreneurs today.

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