Biodegradable: Definition, Examples & More

Given enough time, even plastic bottles eventually break down. It's a matter of "when".

Definition of Biodegradable
Definition of Biodegradable

What is the definition of biodegradable?

A biodegradable item decomposes naturally within a year with the help of microorganisms and other bio-processes.

Biodegradable waste, depending on its type, can sometimes also be called green waste, food waste, or organic waste. When biodegradable products are exposed to nature, including oxygen and moisture, they break down relatively efficiently. 

Here are some examples of how long various biodegradable items take to break down naturally (assuming an adequate supply of oxygen and moisture):

  • Cardboard (unwaxed) – 3 months
  • Cotton rope – 3 to 14 months
  • Newspaper – 2 to 4 weeks
  • Orange peels – 2 to 4 weeks
  • Paper – 2-5 months
  • Paper towels – 2 to 4 weeks
  • Wood (plywood) – 1 to 3 years

However, when biodegradable materials are thrown into a landfill where they are not subjected to natural decomposition (they’re deprived of oxygen and moisture), they break down very slowly and create methane gas in the process.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25+ times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and is therefore a significant pollutant when it comes to climate change and carbon emission.

When it comes to plastics, biodegradable plastics cause a range of water issues, so reducing rather than recycling & reusing plastic should always be prioritized.

What happens to non-biodegradable waste?

There are many items that would be considered non-biodegradable, and though they will eventually break down, the time it takes for this to occur is much longer. Consider, for instance, these items: 

  • Aluminum cans – 80 to 200 years
  • Diapers – 450 years
  • Fishing line – 600 years
  • Glass – 1,000 years
  • Plastic bottles – 450 years
  • Plastic six-pack holder – 400 years
  • Styrofoam cup – 50 years
  • Tin cans – 50 years
  • Cigarettes – 1 to 5 years

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Biodegradability is the ability of a material to decompose naturally within a year with the help of microorganisms and other bio-processes.

Four examples of biodegradable items (one year or less to biodegrade):

  • Organic cotton (takes 5 months to biodegrade). 
  • Sawdust (takes 6 months to biodegrade)
  • Polylactide aliphatic copolymer (CPLA) (takes 5-6 months to biodegrade)
  • Biodegradable diaper (takes 1 year to biodegrade)

Five examples of non-biodegradable items (more than one year to biodegrade):