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Differences between biodegradable and non-biodegradable

Updated April 17, 2017

There is a clear difference between the terms "biodegradable" and "non-biodegradable." The former is natural and beneficial to the environment when disposed of properly. Inversely, the latter carries no benefits and only compounds the already catastrophic damage to the planet. As consumers, understanding the difference can help people make informed decisions about the materials they buy.

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Biodegradable is a term applied to materials that decompose naturally in the environment. They also break down with the aid of bacteria and fungi. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) explains that these products are made from renewable materials. Like anything renewable, these resources are capable of replacing themselves so that they can be constantly reused. Biodegradable products are made from natural components like plants and animals. Paper is a prime example of biodegradable and renewable material, since it is made from trees. Once a tree is used, another one can be easily planted in its place. Different plants and crops are also being used to make chemicals like polymers and plastics.

Environmental Impacts

Commons sense dictates that any material that decomposes naturally is less harmful to the environment than one that lingers indefinitely. While this is a significant benefit, it is not always the case. FuturEnergia points out that though these substances do eventually break down, some can take a long time. A banana peel, for example, takes up to three years to fully break down. Biodegradable plastics are a recent advancement. On the surface, plastics made of renewable substances sounds like a good idea, and they are. However, without the right temperature, micro-organisms and humidity, biodegradable plastics could do more harm than good. In a landfill, the plastics emit greenhouse gases as they break down, harming the ozone layer. Overall, biodegradable materials are beneficial only if they are dealt with properly.


Unlike its counterpart, non-biodegradable material does not decompose naturally. Rather than disappear on their own, these materials pile up in landfills. These materials are synthetic and entirely man-made. Regular plastics, for example, are made from non-renewable ingredients like oil or petroleum. Other examples include cans, glass bottles and industrial waste.

Environmental Impact

While biodegradable materials provide some environmental benefits, there are no advantages to non-biodegradable products. Those that cannot be recycled stay in landfills indefinitely or require special treatment, such as incineration. Their impact is not limited to land. The Korea Coast Guard explains that when non-biodegradable waste reaches the ocean, it travels all over the globe. Marine life is constantly killed from accidentally consuming these products.

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About the Author

Alex Saez is a writer who draws much of his information from his professional and academic experience. Saez holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Queen's University and an advanced diploma in business administration, with a focus on human resources, from St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.

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