What Makes Materials Biodegradable
Biodegradable materials are capable of being broken down to their more fundamental chemical molecules through the actions of microorganisms. Organic matter, materials that are naturally found in the environment, will be broken down into the basic building blocks of life (carbon dioxide, nitrates, etc.) and returned to the environment to be used again.
Synthetic materials, things that are created not in nature but in a lab, may or may not be able to biodegrade. If a synthetic material has a similar composition to something organic, it may be able to biodegrade. Often, synthetic materials are comprised of combinations of elements that do not occur naturally, and for which there are no microorganisms to break them down. These types of materials will never biodegrade.
Environmental and economic impacts of waste disposal can be measured in part by studying the speed at which materials break down, and how they break down.
Dangers and Risks
It’s not necessarily beneficial for all materials to break down. It’s possible that the products of biodegradation can be more harmful than the substance that was degraded. Certain pesticides, for example, produce compounds when they biodegrade that are even more toxic to the environment than the pesticide itself.
When biodegradable products end up in a landfill, they get buried under layers and layers of trash, cutting them off from a supply of oxygen. Under these conditions, these products will biodegrade anaerobically (without oxygen), and thus release methane, a very strong greenhouse gas.
Why Biodegradable Products are Better for the Planet
The benefits of biodegradable substances are only felt when they are disposed of properly. Compost piles capture and return all of the recycled nutrients to the environment, and help to sustain new life. Some industrial composting facilities are also able to capture greenhouse gases that are produced through the decomposition process, and then use those greenhouse gases to produce energy. Composting mostly produces carbon dioxide, which is 25 times less potent at warming the atmosphere over a 100 year period than methane is. That's a big deal. Plus, the end result of composting is a product that can help sequester carbon, improve soil health, and promote higher crop yields.
The Most Easily Biodegradable Materials
The number one biodegradable product we use every day is food. Any food waste that was once living, like meats, vegetables, and grains, can be composted and broken down by natural bacteria and other microorganisms. Yard waste is another viable biodegradable product. In home compost piles, fruit and vegetable scraps are among the easiest materials to work with.
Other easily biodegradable materials include uncoated office paper and tissue products.