What Biodegradable Really Means

biodegradable plates and cutlery

One of the most often abused marketing buzzwords in the world refers to how products are made and packaged: “biodegradable.” You can read all over the place how brands are focusing on using biodegradable packaging, making their products with biodegradable materials, or using biodegradable shipping containers.

This is not to say that opting for biodegradable goods is a “bad” thing, or even that all brands are misusing the term—certainly, it’s a better option than non-biodegradable materials. However, the overuse of the phrase can mislead consumers into thinking they are making an environmentally conscious, sustainable choice when they choose “biodegradable.” What this article wants to do is help you understand what biodegradable really means, and how you should think about approaching your decision-making as a consumer–even when you see something being labeled as biodegradable.

What Does Being Biodegradable Mean?

Just like the use of the actual word itself, the definition of “biodegradable” has been reshaped by just about every brand that wants to use it to sell products to people. We quite like the definition provided by Notpla: “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 gasses.” (We also appreciate that Notpla points out that just because a product says it’s biodegradable, that doesn’t mean that it will degrade in all ecosystems–some materials require specific conditions to biodegrade.)

The technical definition of biodegradable is pure biology and chemistry:
It is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, like bacteria. Organic matter is explicitly defined as a carbon-based compound found within the environment. Importantly, biodegradation results in products that can be reused by the ecosystem: water, carbon dioxide, and biomass including sugars. Ultimately, biodegradable means that a product can be broken down by the environment organically—so, of course, anything is only as biodegradable as the ecosystem it’s discarded in.

Is Biodegradable the Same as Recyclable?

The short answer is no. Recycling specifically refers to putting used, man-made materials back into the production cycle for integration into other new products. While biodegradation might be a fun way to think about the planet doing its own recycling–turning organic waste back into chemical compounds it can use for other environmental processes–they are different concepts when it comes to how we refer to products, packaging, and materials.

Often, recyclable materials are used with the intention of preventing addition of those materials to the discard cycle. Some recyclable materials are meant to last forever–certified 90-percent post-consumer recycled stainless steel, for example, maintains the same quality and strength through the recycling process perpetually. Products consisting of this steel, like most of Klean Kanteen’s canisters, bottles, and tumblers, can be made from “recyclable” consumer steel items. But biodegradable items–like cups or straws made from organic material and not plastics–do not retain quality throughout the recycling process. If they do get recycled, they are “downcycled”--used for the creation of lower-quality products.

Is Biodegradable Really Better?

In a vacuum, yes, of course, biodegradable materials are better to use than nonbiodegradable ones, because they are less harmful to the environment. But there are few real limits to what “biodegradable” can mean on a company’s marketing materials—it could be referencing one specific ecosystem, which is quite unhelpful if that item won’t be discarded within that context. More problematic still is the time element of biodegradation. Even some naturally occurring items, like banana peels, can take years to decompose organically. One of the most obvious examples of “biodegradable” misnaming occurs with plastics, which eventually will break down—but not entirely into organic matter, and not for hundreds (if not thousands!) of years.

So the short answer is that things that are biodegradable in the true, scientific sense of the word are absolutely better. The more complex answer, and the more accurate one, is that much fewer products are actually biodegradable in ways that are environmentally impactful—but if you know which ones are, purchasing biodegradable items is beneficial.

Why is Plastic Not Biodegradable?

biodegradable plates, cups and cutlery on the left versus the same items made of plastic on the right

“Biodegradable plastic” is pure marketing—truly, it is a misnomer. Researchers at Ohio State explain that biodegradable materials, like cardboard, break down when microorganisms digest the polymers in it using enzymes, which are proteins that expedite the breakdown of natural polymers found in plant tissues. “If oxygen is present, which usually means the microbes and the thing they are breaking down are exposed to air, the polymers will biodegrade completely. Eventually, all that’s left will be carbon dioxide, water and other biological material.”

So why is plastic problematic? Because the polymers within them, like polypropylene, are not naturally abundant. As explained by OSU, “The enzymes in the microorganisms that break down biodegradeable materials don’t recognize the bonds that hold polymers together.”

What happens next is well-known by now: Over time, the polymers in plastic waste may break down, but not for eons—perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. By then, the damage is done, with chemicals leached into the water and soil or broken into tiny pieces that are harmful to wildlife.

Rethink Biodegradable Purchasing

There is no shame in buying something because it has been marketed as “biodegradable”—but few things truly are, because the definition tends to be so loose and widely applicable. Instead, we’d encourage you to make purchases without the intention of discarding them at all. Biodegradable does not mean that anything can be thrown away without a thought, so instead, focus on buying items with the idea that you’ll have it for a long time.

Instead of looking for biodegradable drink ware and food ware to purchase, consider investing in high-quality recycled items that have been pulled out of the discarding cycle and designed to last. Replacing “biodegradable” straws, cups, plates, and cutlery with certified 90-percent post-consumer recycled stainless steel items, like our straws, various tumblers and cups, and food boxes, is an obvious and economical way to ensure that fewer items will end up in the landfill.

It’s not always clear what a company means when it calls its packaging or product “biodegradable.” By paying attention to what your purchases are made of and by focusing on shopping with the intention to reduce waste, you can reduce the amount of low-quality “biodegradable” products in landfills across the world.