Confusion about which products are legitimately biodegradable
What is biodegradable?
Biodegradation is where the large molecules of the substance are transformed into smaller compounds by enzymes and acids that are naturally produced by microorganisms. Once the molecules are reduced to a suitable size, the substances can be absorbed through the organism cell walls where they are metabolized for energy. Typically household compost contains these large molecules and biodegrades in this way.
The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines ‘biodegradability’ as:
“capable of undergoing decomposition into carbon dioxide, methane, water, inorganic compounds, or biomass in which the predominant mechanism is the enzymatic action of microorganisms, that can be measured by standardized tests in a specified period of time, reflecting available disposal conditions.”
By definition, most chemicals are biodegradable because they’re capable of being broken down by the action of living things, such as microorganisms.
However, there’s no universal definition or certification for the marketing claim “biodegradable”. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued general guidelines on what types of products qualify as legitimately biodegradable. For marketers to make such a claim, an entire product or package should completely break down and return to nature within a “reasonably short period of time” after customary disposal. A new proposal to tighten these guidelines further defines a “reasonably short period of time” to be no more than one year after customary disposal.
The FTC also states that marketers should not make unqualified claims of biodegradability for items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities, because decomposition will not occur within one year.
Natureworks Packaging Australia conforms to FTC guidelines for all products we sell and represent.
There’s a vast difference in how long it takes for different materials to break down
How quickly an item decomposes into the earth depends on its basic components, the percentage of its biodegrading materials, and where it is left to decompose.
Decomposition rates of items in landfills are staggeringly slow due to the absence of sunlight, moisture and air exposure. Some rough estimates of the time it takes for certain products to completely break down in a landfill include:
- Apple core: 1 to 2 months or longer, due to lack of microbes
- Paper Bag: 1 month
- Cardboard: 2 months
- Tin: 50 years
- Aluminum Can: 80-200 years (if recycled, it can be reused within 6 weeks)
- Disposable Nappies: 550 years
- Plastic Bags: up to hundreds of years (newer plastic bags can photo-degrade but most aren’t exposed to sunlight in a landfill)
- Plastic drinking bottles: hundreds of years (they consist of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is made from petroleum that doesn’t break down)
- Milk cartons: 30 years
- Glass: 1-2 million years (but if recycled, it can be reused within 6 weeks)
- Styrofoam: never (no sign of ever breaking down)
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