Limiting Waste

Hello all! Today, I would like to talk to you about biodegradability! Dorothy Horn is a Marine Biologist researching microplastics in the ocean. In her interview found at, she described some interesting facts about plastic waste. Listening to her interview sparked my curiosity, so I began asking questions. Questions like: what is biodegradability? Can something break down in an environment? How do things that remain in an environment affect organisms? Are plastics non-biodegradable, and what does that mean?

I had a lot of questions, and I went searching for some answers!

To understand how materials break down, we will define degradable, biodegradable, and compostable. Each one describes the extent to which a material can decompose.

Degradable- susceptible to chemical breakdown.

Simply put, a chemical reaction changes things. For example, on your birthday, you may have struck a match to light your candles. That is a chemical reaction. The burning of wood is a chemical change where certain elements react with one another, producing light and heat.

Degrading is a chemical change where a material breaks down into its chemical parts. It’s like the material is aging or getting old. Almost anything can degrade with time, even plastic. But, just because plastic can break down, does not mean it returns safely to the environment. When plastic degrades, it breaks down into tiny pieces or into powder. Degraded plastics can harm small organisms as they eat and breathe in these small particles. Something that Dorothy talked about was microplastics getting stuck in different parts of a crab, which is harmful to them and our environment.

Biodegradable- the ability of things to decompose through the action of microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi.

Chances are, you’ve seen the garbage cans with the blue or green lids. That’s recycling! When we recycle, we take old bottles and cans and make new ones out of the old ones. But we’re not the only creatures that recycle. In fact, nature does a lot better job at this through the carbon cycle.

The carbon cycle is the Earth’s ultimate form of recycling. It is a process where carbon dioxide circulates and recycles through the earth. First, plants take in carbon from the atmosphere to power photosynthesis, which is how they make their food. Like we need pans, spoons, and whisks to prepare our food, plants need CO2, water, and sunlight to make theirs. Animals then come along and eat the plants. Animals exhale carbon in the form of carbon dioxide, which plants use again. Are you starting to see the cycle?

But like all things, animals degrade too. When plants and animals die, they need a little help to return to the earth as a natural substance. And those little helpers are decomposers. These little organisms work behind the scenes to break down materials into chemicals. Decomposers include bacteria, fungi, and some insects.

Biodegradable materials are those that decomposers can process. Also, the chemicals produced are not harmful when they return to the environment, unlike some degradable material.

To help reduce landfill waste, some companies have created bioplastics. Made of natural materials, bioplastics begin to break down within a few months to a couple of years. Take a look around your pantry. You might see some vegetable oil or corn starch that you’ve used for cooking. That’s the same stuff that scientists make bioplastics out of. Cool, right!? With a little creativity, anything can be done. Using bioplastics limits waste build-up and helps create a healthier and cleaner environment.

Compostable- the ability of a natural material to be converted into decayed organic matter often utilized as plant fertilizer and added to a system.

Like biodegradable materials, decomposers can process compostable materials. But compostable takes it a step further by contributing nutrients to a system. Compost is a type of fertilizer, which helps plants grow. People make compost by putting dead plant materials into a pile, called a compost pile. Decomposers convert waste into chemicals and nutrients that help other plants to grow. There’s a good chance you’ve seen a compost pile before at your school, community garden, or local farms. They are large piles filled with vegetable scraps, spoiled fruit, grass clippings, woodchips, straw, eggshells, or sawdust.

Now that we understand the differences between degradable, biodegradable, and compostable, let’s look at some common items and how long they take to break down.

Plastic Bottle450 years
Plastic Bag500 or more years
Aluminum Can250 years, but it can be recycled and back on the shelf in less than 6 weeks
Banana peel2-5 weeks
Apple Core2 months
Glass Bottle1 million years, breaks down into shards, but will not return to a natural environment
Electronic Waste (like a phone)1-2 million years, Electronic devices seem like they were made to resist decomposition forever.
Clothing (cotton)1-5 months
N95 Mask 450 years
Plastic Utensils 1,000 years
Metal UtensilsNot degradable, since it is natural, it can be used to make more metal
Wood Stump50-100 years
Plastic Straw200 years
(Common items and how long they take to degrade in a landfill)

I hope this list astounded you as much as it surprised me! The items that take the longest to degrade are plastics, glass, and electronic wastes. The good news is that limiting plastic waste can be a fun and creative experience! Here are some things you can try:

  1. Carry/make a reusable silverware kit when you’re going out. Keeping one in the glovebox will ensure that you always have a spoon, knife, fork, and straw with you wherever you’ll go.
  2. I found that reusing single-use utensils by washing them cuts down on my waste when I am given plastic forks and knives when I get food delivered.
  3. Though it’s best to not use plastics at all, recycling is better than littering the ocean. Recycling produces fossil fuels and is expensive, but also helps cut down on what’s going into the landfills/ocean.
  4. Create a compost pile and give nutrients back to your plants! A worm garden can be a perfect place for kitchen-waste to be composted.
  5. Carry a large mesh bag with you when you go to the ocean, hike on trails, or walk around town. Just picking up trash left by others can help keep our nature trails and other public places clean and healthy. I like to carry some gloves with me also to ensure my own safety when I’m picking up trash. These little contributions, even as small as packing out a few bottles, make me feel like I’m leaving the woods better than when I entered.
  6. Practice LEAVE NO TRACE when venturing in the wilderness. 
  7. Consider donating to nonprofits that do beach clean-ups and biological research.
  8. There are some products that are hard to avoid plastic wrapping, but organizations have come together to create products that you can order without any plastic packaging. 
    1. Toilet Paper- Seventh Generation is an environmentally friendly toilet paper that offers 2-ply sheets made from recycled fiber. The toilet rolls are wrapped individually in paper, shipped in a cardboard box.
    2. Compostable (decomposes in compost) and biodegradable (biodegrades in landfills) trashbags
    3. Zero-waste or DIY detergents
    4. Bite is a company that makes toothpaste tablets to avoid throwing out plastic tubes.
    5. Local farmer’s markets are the best place to find locally-grown food without packaging, plus, you would support farmers and gardeners in your community. 
  9. If you have a lot of plastic waste and you’re not sure what to do with it, there are plenty of DIY crafts out there that can convert those old bottles and cans into bee habitats or adorable containers. Think creatively! Anything is possible when you have materials!
  10. Consider joining a local clean-up community and volunteer to spread the word.
  11. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repeat! 
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