The Meaning of Biodegradable Explained

Chances are you have checked a product’s label and thought to yourself, ‘what is the meaning of biodegradable?’ We’ve all been there before, and the term is becoming increasingly popular as brands continue to make more sustainable products.

There is also a lot of greenwashing happening with companies trying to cash in on sustainability. With that in mind, some are skeptical of whether biodegradable is even good for the planet.

It’s understandable because the best option is not creating or generating any waste in the first instance. In saying that, sometimes, it is not that simple. Continue reading to discover what biodegradable really means and how you can determine if a product is biodegradable.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

One thing is for sure; biodegradable has become a sustainability buzzword. Luckily, it is pretty easy to define and don’t worry; by the end of this article, you’ll know the exact meaning of biodegradable. Essentially, a biodegradable item can be broken down into its base elements by the passage of time and microorganisms.

This biological process of biodegradation disintegrates materials into various component parts and returns them to nature. Most things deemed biodegradable or even non ‘organic’ include plastics.

meaning of biodegradable

In saying that, disintegrating chemically-crafted or non-organic materials has its challenges. Biodegradable products are essential because they create less pollution and, as a result, make our planet healthier.

Everything will eventually decompose; however, some items can take thousands of years. For example, according to Biological Diversity, plastic bags take 1000 years to decompose. By contrast, biodegradable products generally break down within six to nine months.

What is Biodegradable Plastic?

Biodegradable plastic is just as it sounds; plastic that degrades under biological action. Some of these items are compostable, which means they disintegrate under controlled conditions, for example, in compost sites.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics are generally created from biobased sources. For example, sugar beets, seaweed, or various other plants rather than fossil fuels. If sourced responsibly, these materials can also have benefits for the planet.

Technically all plastic does break down, but with biodegradable plastic, it breaks down in a more realistic timeframe.

Examples of Biodegradable Waste and Products

Following on from our breakdown of the meaning of biodegradable, let’s look at some examples of biodegradable waste. These include food waste, paper waste, and untreated wood. Additionally, items made of non-plastic recycled materials.

A lot of sustainable bamboo products are also biodegradable. For example, bamboo toothbrushes. All of these items break down quickly; however, they do so at different time frames. The only consideration here is if the items have been chemically-treated or chemical compounds have been added.

These chemicals can make them more difficult to disintegrate. Similarly, they can become toxic when decomposing and, as a result, do more harm than good. In saying that, not all biodegradable products will contain any chemicals.

What is the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable?

Similar to biodegradable, compostable has also become an environmental buzzword. As a result, the terms are often used interchangeably, and most people need help to tell the difference between the two. In fairness, the differences are very minimal.

Both compostable and biodegradable waste breaks down, which occurs when microorganisms digest the building blocks that comprise the material. However, biodegradable waste is determined by its ability to biodegrade in a reasonable time frame and into substances derived from nature.

meaning of biodegradable products

By contrast, compostable items are specifically designed and tested to be processed in either industrial or home composting facilities. These facilities allow for specific conditions, such as moisture or temperature, which transform the materials into usable soil conditioners.

The primary difference between the two is biodegradable products generally refer to any material that breaks down and degrades on the planet. Compostable products, on the other hand, decompose in compostable environments and will only leave beneficial residual products behind such as fertilisers. Therefore, understanding the meaning of biodegradable is essential for ensuring you appropriately manage the waste.

The Impact of Biodegradable Waste

Now that you have a better understanding of the meaning of biodegradable, you may be wondering about its environmental status. As mentioned previously, sustainable living has become a huge trend which is great to see. This is causing many brands to reevaluate their product lines and ways of doing business to be more sustainable.

In saying that, some businesses are just talking the talk instead of walking the walk. This makes some people suspicious of terms like biodegradable and compostable. So what impact does biodegradable waste have on the planet, and is it the planet’s enemy or ally? Biodegradable should be seen as a good thing.

This is because it is a concept that involves a product breaking down back into nature’s resources. However, it is definitely not the ultimate approach; it is always better to work to reduce where we can. Unfortunately, biodegradable waste can be problematic when it enters landfills.

According to NBC News, when biodegradable waste arrives in landfills, it breaks down faster than regular rubbish. This results in a more significant release of methane which contributes greatly to global warming.

In some cases, because of this, the report finds that biodegradable products can be more detrimental to the planet than regular rubbish.- at least when the product reaches the end of its life.

This further highlights the importance of disposing of biodegradable waste correctly. For the most part, biodegradable products are the greener option. However, when they are not disposed of correctly, that is when they cause harm to the planet. The findings in the report solely focus on the disposal of biodegradable products.

Another important thing to consider is that biodegradable plastic is tested to ensure it decomposes under the right conditions in a lab. This includes factors like UV exposure, oxygen levels, and temperature. However, the natural world does not have these identical conditions.

Therefore, we can never be 100 percent positive that if biodegradable products are littered, they will actually break down. When these products break down, they can pose the same threats to ecosystems and habitats as traditional plastic.

It all comes down to disposing of biodegradable products correctly. However, it is still essential to remember that biodegradable is not the solution to our plastic waste crisis.

How To Tell If Something Is Biodegradable

Just as it is vital to understand the meaning of biodegradable, it is also essential to be able to tell if a product is genuinely biodegradable.

These kinds of products are usually plant-based, so if left alone, they will disintegrate into their natural elements, such as water, carbon dioxide, and other minerals. From here, they will blend back into the Earth with zero traces.

This is the ideal position with a biodegradable product. In saying that, harmful chemicals and trace elements can still be left in the soil. This is the case even if the product is labelled as biodegradable. Therefore, the degree of biodegradability is crucial to consider. However, it can be challenging to know as products are not always labelled with this information.

In addition, you need to know exactly how to dispose of your products correctly so you can do your part. Below are some tips to help you determine whether a product is genuinely biodegradable.

1. Check If It Is Compostable or Biodegradable

First things first, you need to check whether the product in question is compostable or biodegradable. As mentioned previously, the terms are often used interchangeably.

Similarly, a lot of producers do too or label the product with both compostable and biodegradable, making things more confusing. Now that you know the meaning of biodegradable, it’ll be a lot easier for you to tell.

The thing to note here is that compostable products degrade as long as they are in the right environment. Therefore, if the product is compostable and not biodegradable, it is vital to know this to ensure that process is carried out.

To find this out, look at the details the brand gives regarding the disposal of the product. This should give you a better idea of whether the product is genuinely biodegradable.

2. Research the Brand

Frequently greenwashing becomes clear very quickly when a customer performs a background check on the business. So, don’t just take the face value, do the research to see if the brand really does care about sustainability and saving the planet. Get to know them, their values, and their mission.

This will help you see where sustainability is on their agenda. Look for specific statements regarding the biodegradability of their products and official certifications that prove their products are what they say they are.

It is also a great idea to check out some customer reviews, too, as they will tell you a lot about the brand as a whole. Assess whether the brand shows they understand the meaning of biodegradable, too, as this could also inform your opinion.

3. Check the Product’s Label

Another great way to confirm if a product is genuinely biodegradable and sustainable is by checking the product’s label. Review the materials the product is made of and keep in mind that biodegradable materials are those already present naturally on the planet. After all, what determines whether a product is biodegradable is its chemical structure.

These fabrics are not harmful or toxic to the planet, and the Earth absorbs them within six months to a year. For example, bio-plastics are created from vegetable oil, cornstarch, and other plant-based materials.

Additionally, there are also other materials made from natural fibers. If in any doubt, research the materials to shape your opinion.

4. Look at Reviews

Speaking of reviews, you can also check out third-party websites like media publications to see what they have to say about the brand and its sustainability status. For example, if the product is a pair of biodegradable footwear, the Good On You website may have covered the brand.

meaning of degradable toothbrushes

This website reviews apparel brands on how sustainable they are, so it is a great resource when researching businesses. Similarly, there are lots of eco-activist websites and media platforms that may have covered the brand too. This should give you more information on the business in the most unbiased means.

Are Biodegradable Plastics Better Than Traditional Plastics?

You understand the meaning of biodegradable, but perhaps you still think plastic is plastic. Biodegradable plastic options will always be better than traditional plastic. This is especially the case if biodegradable plastic is disposed of correctly. The reason for this is that they break down quicker than traditional plastic does and are made of resources that return back to the Earth.

Can I Put Biodegradable Waste Into My Compost?

Just because something is biodegradable does not automatically make it compostable. The main reason is that the components the item breaks down into may not offer any nutrients when used as compost. Therefore, biodegradable products, from packing peanuts to nappies, should not be placed in your compost bin or heap.

Instead, you should follow the brand’s instructions on how to dispose of your biodegradable products correctly. This is why it is so important people all comprehend the meaning of biodegradable.

Which Is Better – Biodegradable or Compostable?

The best solution is to create no waste, but if you must, compostable products are the best option. This is because they use a lot less water and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions throughout the manufacturing process. Additionally, they require less energy and will not pose any harm to plants or soil.

Compostable items turn into nutrients for healthy soil, so it is also great to get this purpose out of rubbish. It is also important to remember here that not every biodegradable product is made the same way and has the same residual elements in landfills.


There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the term biodegradable. It has become a bit of a sustainability term but is too often confused with compostable. We broke down the meaning of biodegradable in this article and hopefully answered all of your burning questions on the topic.

Ultimately, biodegradable means a product will break down in a reasonable timeframe. These products are comprised of natural resources that will return to the planet. By contrast, compostable items can go into the compost bin and transform into nutrients for the soil.

When it comes to which is the best option, it is always ideal to reuse where possible and reduce waste. However, compostable is still a more preferable method in relation to safeguarding the health of our planet.