What is Biodegradation?

Biodegradable containers

In a world where traditional disposal methods are overwhelming landfills and compromising the health of our planet, other options have emerged. This includes the use of biodegradable goods and packaging. But what is biodegradation and how can it support Planet Earth? Let’s take a look. 

The Chemical Process Behind Biodegradation

Biodegradation is the word used to describe the breakdown (degradation) of a material by (biological) microorganisms, like fungi, air, water, bacteria and other natural agents in soil. In fact, this natural process occurs every time you leave a newspaper outside and it starts to degrade, or toss an apple core into your yard only to find it gone in a matter of months. 

We can break down (pun intended) the process into three steps:

  • Biodeterioration: The structure of an object becomes mechanically weakened, altering the chemical, physical, and mechanical properties of the material. This is typically a result of abiotic (non living) factors like chemicals, temperature, or light in the environment. 
  • Biofragmentation: Microorganisms break down the object’s materials in aerobic or anaerobic conditions, producing either methane or carbon dioxide, water, and a new biomass and residue.
  • Assimilation: Old materials become incorporated into new microbial cells.

  • What is Biodegradable?

    Now that we know how it works, let’s explore exactly what is biodegradable. 

    In essence, nearly every product is biodegradable—but the process may take tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years. So, while something like vegetables or paper could be totally transformed in just a couple of months, plastic, aluminum, or glass can take many millennia to eventually decompose. 

    This is why, in many cases, to be considered “biodegradable,” a significant proportion of a material must be transformed by biological processes into CO2, minerals, and water within a short period of time. There is no global legal definition for biodegradability, but European standards typically require that 90% of a material is biodegraded within  6 months. 

    With this understanding, plastic is considered to not be naturally biodegradable. However, many things we use in our day-to-day lives are biodegradable, like food waste, grass clippings, paper products, and tree leaves. 

    How Biodegradable Products Benefit Our Planet

    Similar to composting, biodegradation harnesses microorganisms and biological activity to transform biodegradable materials into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. The only difference is that biodegradation is a naturally-occurring process, whereas composting is a human-driven one. Similarly, compostable material is typically broken down in a shorter time frame.

    Composting and biodegradation both play a significant role in sustainability. Why? Simply put, they reduce the volume of waste that ends up in landfills. In fact, if we did away with plastic packaging by replacing it with biodegradable packaging, it would reduce what we send to landfills by one-third! 

    Not only that, but biodegradable packaging is less likely to release dangerous toxins or microplastics as they break down. Instead, biodegradable products turn into water vapor, carbon dioxide, and organic materials that aren’t harmful to the environment. 

    Whereas something like a non-biodegradable plastic bottle will take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose in landfill (especially because it doesn’t have the necessary microorganisms to assist with the process), something like a biodegradable toothbrush will break down in a much shorter period of time. 

    In fact, the oral care industry is one that’s readily embracing biodegradation—and for good reason.

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    Globally, we throw away 23 billion plastic toothbrushes every year. Often made of polypropylene plastic and nylon, each toothbrush can take up to 500 years or longer to biodegrade (read: toothbrushes are non-biodegradable). 

    And that’s not the only plastic in our oral care routines. When you add up nylon strings of dental floss, non-recyclable toothpaste tubes, microbeads in toothpaste, and plastic bottles of mouthwash, we’re left with a lot of plastic waste that will still be in our landfills thousands of years from now.  

    This is why more people are asking the question, what packaging materials are biodegradable? While plastic has become a convenient packaging material, its toll on our planet is causing us to look to biodegradable alternatives. 

    As an example, the oral care, beauty, personal care, and cleaning industries are beginning to use eco-friendly packaging to lessen their impact on the planet. These include:

    • Biodegradable packaging: paper, cardboard, bio-based plastic
    • Infinitely recyclable (or reusable) packaging: glass, aluminum
    • Zero-waste packaging, like toothpaste tablets, shampoo and conditioner bars, or refillable dish soap and laundry detergent

    Planet-Friendly Packaging Disposal with Terra & Co. 

    At Terra & Co., we use green packaging and products that promote a healthy smile and happy planet. These include recyclable sugarcane plastics, biodegradable cardboard, and eco-friendly soy ink. Nearly everything is readily recyclable through curbside collection programs. 

    Our non-coated, unlined recycled FSC certified paper packaging is biodegradable. Similarly, our toothbrushes and vegan floss are made with biodegradable bamboo—the fastest growing plant on the planet! Not only does it support our planet as it grows, but after you’re done with a few months of brushing, the bamboo toothbrush will take years to break down naturally—not millennia. Find out more about our products and packaging here

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