What Does Biodegradable Mean in Green Product Labels

Many products brand themselves as green by using labels like biodegradable, but what do these terms actually mean, and can we trust their environmental claims?

The word biodegradable means that a material can be broken down by microorganisms and natural forces into miniscule fragments such as carbon dioxide, water, biomass and natural elements.  Any materials that can biodegrade over short periods of time are considered environmentally friendly.  Degradable is a broader term and means that a larger material can be broken down into smaller fragments catalyzed by heat, water or sunlight.

Biodegradable vs. Degradable

The main difference between biodegradable and degradable is the mechanism through which materials are broken down, as described above.  Technically all materials are degradable and biodegradable; the only variable is the amount of time it takes for them to be broken down.  Products that can biodegrade in shorter periods of time are reused by the environment faster and don’t leave long, lasting footprints on the earth.  Products that take many years, decades or centuries to break down are biodegradable but not environmentally friendly.  Paper or plastic at a supermarket should be an easy question for shoppers, since paper bags take a few weeks to biodegrade, while plastic bags take 10 to 20 years.  Paper is the better option, but the most eco-friendly option is bringing a reusable tote bag.

We just established that virtually everything can be broken down eventually, so a product that labels itself as biodegradable is not inherently safe or eco-friendly.  Some materials can actually biodegrade into even more dangerous chemicals, so being just “biodegradable” without further explanation, is not a very credible term.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

While the terms biodegradable and degradable may be insignificant when it comes to environmental credibility on products, the underlying importance should not be lost.  Materials that are able to biodegrade safely and quickly are crucial to preserving the environment, and greatly reduce our footprint.  With landfills and garbage dumps reaching capacity, and incinerators emitting toxic gases into the atmosphere, everyone should consider a product’s footprint before using it.