Biodegradable vs Non-Biodegradable

  • By: greenorb
  • Date: April 29, 2022
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Before the industrial revolution, we generated low waste, mainly agricultural waste. The industrial revolution spurred urbanization, and many people started migrating to cities. 

As a result, the population in certain areas increased rapidly, leading to excessive consumption.

In addition, factories and workforce generated excessive amounts of non-biodegradable waste. 

Since then, we generate large amounts of waste daily worldwide, posing a threat to the environment.

But, what’s the difference between biodegradable vs non-biodegradable? Biodegradable means that a substance can break down by microorganisms, while non-biodegradable means a material can’t break down by the action of microorganisms.

Here’s everything you need to know about biodegradable vs non-biodegradable materials.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

Biodegradable is a term used to refer to substances or objects that can easily and naturally break down by the action of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. 

Abiotic factors such as temperature, oxygen, UV, sunlight, etc., work alongside microbes to help break down such materials.

The existence of biodegradable materials doesn’t harm the environment as they are natural and decompose into simple organic matters. 

These compounds form organic manure, which gets absorbed into the soil to enrich it with nutrients to support plant growth.

Biodegradable waste is waste originating from animal or plant sources. It means they can get degraded by other living organisms, including abiotic elements, to form simple compounds that can get absorbed by the environment without posing any significant threat.

Examples of Biodegradable Materials

  • Animal and human excrement
  • Food and kitchen waste
  • Manure
  • Eggshells
  • Sewage
  • Paper products
  • Biodegradable plastics
  • Agricultural waste
  • Grass
  • Flower /bush clippings
  • Slaughterhouse waste

What does Non-Biodegradable Mean?

Non-biodegradable is a term used to describe materials incapable of decomposing through natural and biological processes. 

Such materials are often inorganic, synthetic products like glass, plastic, etc.

Since these materials don’t biodegrade easily, they remain in the environment for a long time. 

As a result, they can cause environmental pollution and harm living organisms if poorly disposed of.

Non-biodegradable waste can either be recyclable or non-recyclable. 

Most non-biodegradable materials are non-recyclable, meaning they’re extremely toxic and dangerous to human health and the environment.

Plastic waste is a common pain caused by many environmental issues and human health problems. 

In fact, the amount of plastic waste generated worldwide between 1950 and 2018 is about 6.3 billion tones. And only 9% and 12% of this waste have undergone recycling and incineration, respectively.

Examples of Non-Biodegradable Items

  • Plastic waste (e.g., Plastic bags, cups, plates, bottles, etc.)
  • Styrofoam plates and cups
  • Scrap metal
  • Glass
  • Electric waste
  • Hazardous substances
  • Artificial rubber and polymer

Biodegradable vs Non-Biodegradable: What are the 5 Main Differences?

From the above sections, it’s clear that biodegradable and non-biodegradable are two different terms used to refer to different materials. 

Here are the main differences between biodegradable and non-biodegradable items on various basis:

1. Definition

The main difference between biodegradable vs non-biodegradable substances lies in their definition. 

Biodegradable substances naturally break down over time by the action of natural agents of decomposition. 

These agents include microbes such as bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms.

Alongside that, environmental elements like oxygen, moisture, temperature, UV radiation, etc., contribute to the decomposition of biodegradable materials.

In contrast, non-biodegradable materials don’t decompose naturally and biologically. It means that the natural agents of decomposition, especially microorganisms, can’t act upon them. 

That’s because such substances are solid and non-digestible or toxic, meaning they’ll kill decomposers even before they can act on them.

2. Material Composition

Biodegradables are organic substances that are friendly to decomposers and the environment.

They are gifts given unto us by Mother Nature. In contrast, non-biodegradables are inorganic substances. They include everything created by humans through industrial processes.

3. Rate of Degradation

Biodegradable materials have a faster decomposition rate than non-biodegradable items. But that doesn’t mean biodegradable substances can decompose overnight, no!

The decomposition rate varies depending on the type of material. 

Biodegradable materials can completely decompose anywhere from 1 month to about 5 years.

Examples of Biodegradable Items with their Biodegradation Rates

  • Vegetables: 5days-1 months
  • Cotton rags: 1-5 months
  • Paper: 2-5 months
  • Rope: 3-14 months
  • Tree leaves: 1 year
  • Orange peels: 6 months
  • Wool socks: 1-5 years

Non-biodegradable substances are incapable of decomposing. Even if they were, their rate of decomposition is incredibly low. 

In fact, it could take them up to 1 million years or forever to decompose entirely in the environment.

Examples of Non-Biodegradable Items with their Biodegradation Rates

  • Paper milk cartons coated with plastic: 5years
  • Synthetic leather shoes: 25-40 years
  • Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
  • Aluminum cans: 80-100 years
  • 6-pack plastic holder rings: 450 years
  • Styrofoam cup: 500 years-to-forever
  • Plastic bottles: 500 years-to-forever 
  • Glass: 1 million years

4. Impact on the Environment

Biodegradable items degrade and enter the biogeochemical cycles

These cycles are ways through which a compound like water, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, etc., moves into different locations in the biosphere between living and non-living forms. 

The cycle is beneficial and safe for the environment.

However, biodegradable waste breaks down into harmless components over time to form biodegradable pollutants. 

When disposed of poorly, these pollutants accumulate in large amounts. 

As a result, they can be hazardous and cause significant damage to the environment.

How Biodegradable Materials Can Affect the Environment

  • Decomposition of waste produces a foul smell
  • Heaps of waste can cause diseases in plants, humans, and animals
  • Carbon dioxide and methane gas emission contributes to the greenhouse effect
  • Biodegradable dumpsites become breeding grounds for contagious disease vectors and carriers
  • Impacts marine life directly and indirectly

On the other hand, non-biodegradable materials don’t break down naturally. It means they can’t take part in any of the biogeochemical cycles. 

As a result, non-biodegradables are more harmful to humankind to the environment than biodegradable waste.

How Non-Biodegradable Pollutants Can Affect the Environment

  • Continuous disposal in landfills renders land unproductive
  • Burning plastics emits toxic gasses that contribute to the greenhouse effect and causes acidic rain
  • Toxic gasses emitted can cause respiratory diseases
  • Disposal of non-biodegradable items in water resources affects marine life
  • Plastics releases poisonous compounds that are carcinogenic

That’s the only aspect that makes biodegradable and non-biodegradable items relatively similar. 

So it’s important to adopt suitable strategies to help minimize biodegradable vs non-biodegradable waste to protect the environment.

5. Ease of Management

It’s easier to manage biodegradable waste than non-biodegradable waste. These materials can readily decompose in the environment and get absorbed into the soil.

As for non-biodegradable waste, their generation is rampant. 

Besides, it’s very hard and costly to dispose of or recycle and manage non-biodegradable waste. 

To minimize pollution, they must undergo sorting processes to separate and collect them for recycling or proper disposal.

Bottom Line

So, what’s the difference between biodegradable vs non-biodegradable? Biodegradable is a term used to refer to all substances or items that microbes like fungi and bacteria can break down into simple compounds over time.

Abiotic elements like sunshine, moisture, UV, temperature, and more also contribute to the process. 

As such, they can be very helpful to the environment if generated in limited amounts.

In contrast, non-biodegradable refers to all substances that are incapable of breaking down through natural and biological processes.

 They stay in the environment for many years, resulting in environmental issues.

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