What does “biodegradable” mean?

September 21, 2021

Are you trying to achieve a sustainable lifestyle? Checking labels to make sure the product you are about to buy can be recycled? You rock! And when the product is labelled as biodegradable, you are assuming that it should be good for the planet, right?

But is it? What does "biodegradable" mean? At Notpla, we have gathered our technical and sustainability experts to demystify this misleading word.

How do we define Biodegradable?

Biodegradability at a glance

We define biodegradable as the ability for a material to be broken down naturally by the organisms in an ecosystem. Simply put, biodegradable means that the material naturally breaks down into smaller components, such as sugars and gases.

The biodegradation occurs thanks to microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi. However, just because a product says it's biodegradable doesn't mean it degrades everywhere. Indeed, materials need specific conditions to biodegrade.

Now let's get a bit more technical!

The process of biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, such as bacteria. Organic matter is a carbon-based compound found within the environment. The result of biodegradation is water, carbon dioxide, and biomass (such as sugars).

This biodegradation is a key part of any life cycle on our planet. When organic matter is processed by microorganisms, it releases carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. We know this may trigger alarm bells, as this process is increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. But above all, it is essential to all life on Earth.

How long does it take for things to biodegrade?

The confusion that surrounds the term "biodegradable" is that it does not reference any time scale. Thus something could take more than a lifetime to decompose.

Let's take wood, for example. As a sheet of paper, wood is easily biodegradable. Yet, as a building material, it can take tens or hundreds of years to decompose. We could also take the case of an insect. Although biodegradable in most contexts, if it finds itself trapped in amber it could remain intact for millions of years.

Thus, when designing material, it is key to consider the conditions necessary for biodegradation to occur. And as consumers, it is important to know how to best dispose of them.

What are the optimal conditions for biodegradation?

The best conditions for biodegradation are an optimal combination of temperature, water, oxygen and bacteria.

For example, an orange can have a relatively long shelf-life in a fridge, with controlled conditions. However, whenever it is removed to an environment with the necessary conditions for biodegradation, it begins to break down.

Just think of your orange forgotten at the bottom of your fruit bowl! The orange is taken from an environment with low light and temperature, into an environment where both of these are higher. This increases the speed at which microbes will break down the orange, resulting in faster biodegradation.

Why choosing materials suitable for their use matters

Problems can occur when materials end up in environments where they would biodegrade very slowly or can't biodegrade. Plastic is a material that can face this issue. Don't get us wrong, plastic has its uses, in fact, there are many applications where slow biodegradation is a must.

For example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is resistant to biodegradation, making it a perfect material for sewage systems.

But just as materials that biodegrade quickly would not be suitable as pipes for drainage systems, perhaps there are applications where plastics are not the most suitable, for instance, packaging a sandwich?

Obviously, we wouldn't want our drainage systems to biodegrade. However, in some cases, it would be suitable for packaging to break down in a way that plastic doesn't. Take sandwich bags or plastic bottles, for example - we don't need these single-use plastics to stick around.

Polylactic acid (PLA) is often used as packaging by companies as a biodegradable alternative to fossil-fuel-derived plastics. There are lots of benefits to PLA, in particular, that it is made from plants, giving it a low carbon footprint. Yet, PLA requires a temperature of 58 °C to begin to break down. Biodegradation will not occur if this temperature is not reached. Therefore, PLA can only be disposed of in an industrial composting facility, of which there are few in the UK.

What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable?

Although often used interchangeably, biodegradable and compostable are different terms. The main difference being that biodegradation is a naturally occurring process, and compostability is human-driven biodegradation. Can't wait to master the term "compostability"? Don't worry, we will explore this second term next time.  

As innovators, we are challenging ourselves to be a force for good.

At Notpla, we believe that single-use packaging should last no longer (well, maybe slightly longer) than the contents inside. While the food or drink you are buying will biodegrade in several weeks, plastic sachets or bottles can take more than 450 years. That's why we create materials just like a fruit peel, making packaging that disappears a few weeks after use.

Read one of our most recent articles

Notpla vs. Plastic
Plastic pollution has reached pandemic proportions, posing a severe threat to the health of our planet. Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic waste contaminate our oceans, rivers, lakes, and ecosystems, jeopardizing marine life and disrupting delicate ecological balances. The statistics are alarming – projections indicate that plastic pollution could more than double by 2030 if decisive action isn't taken now to reduce plastic use and improve waste management practices globally.
A spoon made of seaweed? The all-natural solution to single-use plastic cutlery is here.
Enjoying ice cream is one of life's simple pleasures. But let's be honest, the plastic spoons that often come with it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Well, we have some exciting news… following a number of years of intensive research and testing, we've created a revolutionary new ice cream spoon made entirely from seaweed and plants. This new spoon offers a sturdy construction, a smooth feel in the mouth and a guilt-free way to indulge in frozen treats while caring for our Earth. 
A Peek Inside Notpla’s Design Lab
We recently sat down with our Product Designer August Ford to share an inside look at the new product development process of our packaging solutions, tailored to our customers' needs. At Notpla we prioritise the ability to constantly design new products, of different shapes and sizes, that meet our consumers' evolving preferences while reflecting our commitment to sustainability.