Most people are aware of the terms biodegradable and recyclable. Even though there are many succinct definitions in the media for these terms, there are nuances that people should be aware of when discussing and debating them. In this blog post, I would like to clarify these nuances so people can make smart decisions about what they buy.
Definition of biodegradable and recyclable materials
Let's start with the basic definition of these terms.
Biodegradable materials are materials that can be broken down, decomposed, and returned to the environment by natural processes. These materials are made from natural substances such as plant material or starches and can be broken down by microorganisms into natural compounds such as water, carbon dioxide, and biomass.
Recyclable materials, on the other hand, are materials that can be collected, processed, and made into new products. These materials can be sorted, cleaned, and processed to be used in the production of new materials. Examples of recyclable materials include glass, paper, metal, and certain types of plastics. However, not all recyclable materials are always recycled, and the ones that are recycled still require an energy-intensive industrial process to be recycled, which can also produce pollution and waste.
Environmental impact of plastics and plastic packaging
Plastics and plastic packaging have had a significant impact on the environment. The production, use, and disposal of plastics and plastic packaging contribute to pollution, waste, and resource depletion.
Pollution: Plastic debris, including microplastics, is present in oceans and other bodies of water, causing harm to marine life and potentially entering the food chain with the human consumption of marine animals. Plastic pollution also affects land-based ecosystems and wildlife.
Waste: Plastic and plastic packaging materials often end up in landfills or as litter in the environment, where they can take up to a thousand years to decompose. They also contribute to the alarming growth of landfills and the increasing use of incineration to deal with the waste problem.
Resource depletion: The production of plastics and packaging materials requires large amounts of fossil fuels, and it also takes up land and water resources. In addition, the main source of plastics is petroleum which is a nonrenewable resource.
Climate Change: The production of plastic and plastic packaging materials also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.
With over 380 Million metric tons of plastics produced every year, the overall environmental impact of plastics and plastic packaging is quite significant, and it is important to find ways to reduce or eliminate these negative effects.
Biodegradable materials can be a promising alternative to traditional plastics and plastic packaging, as they can be broken down by natural processes and returned to the environment without leaving any harmful toxins or pollutants behind.
Environmental benefits of biodegradable materials
In contrast to petroleum-based plastics, biodegradable materials offer many advantages.
Biodegradable materials can be broken down by natural processes and return to the environment without leaving behind toxins or pollutants
Biodegradable materials are made from natural substances such as plant-based materials or starch-based materials and can be broken down by microorganisms into natural compounds such as water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. This process is known as biodegradation.
Biodegradable materials do not contribute to landfills
One of the main benefits of biodegradable materials is that they can be broken down by natural processes and returned to the environment without leaving behind harmful toxins or pollutants. Unlike traditional plastics, which can take hundreds of years to decompose and can release harmful chemicals as they break down, biodegradable materials can be broken down relatively quickly by microorganisms.
Biodegradable materials can reduce dependence on fossil fuels
Additionally, Biodegradable materials also reduce dependence on fossil fuels, as they are made from renewable resources like plant starch. By making a deliberate choice to consume biodegradable materials you can choose to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ecosystem.
Biodegradable materials offer lower environmental impact than plastics
It's important to note that biodegradable materials need specific conditions such as oxygen, water, and microorganisms to degrade, which is why they may not always be composted. However, they still have a lower environmental impact than traditional plastics, which can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
Limitations of biodegradable materials
While biodegradable materials have many environmental benefits over traditional plastics, there are also some limitations to consider:
Not always composted
As mentioned earlier, biodegradable materials need specific conditions such as oxygen, water, and microorganisms to degrade. These conditions may not always be present in the environment, meaning that biodegradable materials may not always be able to degrade as quickly or effectively as desired. Additionally, not all biodegradable materials can be composted, and some types may need industrial composting facilities.
Durability and Functionality
Some biodegradable materials may not be as durable or functional as traditional plastics. They may have lower melting points, making them less suitable for certain products or applications.
Biodegradable materials may be more expensive than traditional plastics, due to the cost of producing and sourcing the raw materials.
There is a lack of standardization and regulation surrounding the use of the term "biodegradable." Some products labeled as biodegradable may not actually degrade as quickly or completely as advertised, leading to confusion and mistrust.
Not always suitable for all products
Biodegradable materials may not be suitable for all products or applications. Some products, such as food packaging, require a certain level of barrier properties that biodegradable materials might not provide.
It's important to keep in mind that biodegradable materials are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They may not always be the best choice for every product or application, and other methods such as recycling or reducing the use of plastics will also be necessary to address the environmental impact of plastics.
Biodegradable materials are a promising alternative to traditional plastics and plastic packaging. While they may not be the perfect solution to all environmental issues caused by plastics, they can be a valuable tool in our efforts to reduce pollution and waste.
In conclusion, biodegradable materials offer a promising alternative to traditional plastics and packaging. They can be broken down by natural processes and returned to the environment without leaving behind harmful toxins or pollutants. They also have the potential to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and plastic pollution.
However, it's important to keep in mind that biodegradable materials have some limitations, such as not always being able to be composted, lower durability and functionality compared to traditional plastics, and higher costs. Additionally, there is a lack of standardization and regulation surrounding the use of the term "biodegradable," leading to confusion and mistrust.
Despite these limitations, biodegradable materials can play a valuable role in addressing the environmental impact of plastics. By reducing the amount of plastic waste, biodegradable materials can help to preserve the earth and its resources for future generations. It's important to consider all available options and find the best solution for each particular case.
At CLASPP we aim to provide a balanced phone case product that is biodegradable using industrial composting processes at your local composter as well as durable for daily use to protect your device.
References and resources for additional information
If you are looking for information about recyclable vs biodegradable materials, you can try the following sources:
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)
The American Bioplastics Council (ABC)
The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA)
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
The Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC)
These organizations have extensive information and resources on the environmental impacts of plastics and packaging, as well as the benefits and limitations of biodegradable and recyclable materials. They also provide guidelines, policies, and best practices for sustainable materials management.
Additionally, scientific journals and publications that cover topics such as environmental science, materials science, and chemistry may also be valuable sources of information.
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