broken down by natural processes. These processes typically involve microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, which break down the waste into compounds that can be found in nature. Typically, biodegradable waste is matter derived from plants and animals and other organisms, such as paper, food waste, plant-based plastics, and grass clippings.
Composting is one form of biodegradation, and occurs when organic wastes such as food waste, manure, leaves, grass clippings, paper, and coffee grounds are broken down into a nutrient-rich substance, compost, that can be used to enrich soil.
Certain types of organisms can even biodegrade complex compounds such as hydrocarbons (oil), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pharmaceutical substances, or pesticides. For example, scientists are now using different types of fungi to restore sites that have been polluted with oil¹.
Non-biodegradable waste is waste that cannot be broken down through natural processes. These items tend to be very durable and last a long time in the environment, even hundreds of years. These materials include items such as plastic bags, synthetic materials, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans. Electronic items such as computers do not break down.
The dark side of biodegradable products
Landfills are packed very tightly, and this leads to conditions in which very little air, dirt, or microorganisms are available to assist the biodegradation process, and so it occurs very slowly. When these biodegradable products do finally break down in landfills, they produce methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. While this methane can be captured and used as energy, very few landfill sites are currently doing so².
What we can do?
So, what can we do as consumers? We know that our landfill capacity worldwide is filling up quickly and as a society we need to create sustainable solutions for managing our waste³.
We can stand to learn a lot from nature. In nature, what is the “waste” from one organism will end up as food for something else. For example, leaves that fall to the ground in the autumn will break down and enrich the soil, which will in turn help plant growth during the next growing season.
We can apply this principle from nature in many ways to our own waste.
As much as 65% of our waste may actually be compostable, such as food scraps and yard waste, and this material could be separated from other trash to create nutrient-rich compost to feed our gardens, lawns and farms⁴. Composting our organic waste that we create at home is easy to do, and many municipalities are now implementing organic waste collection programs that make it convenient for both businesses and residents to compost their organics⁵.
We could make things that keep the entire life cycle of each product in mind by applying a Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy, and not produce anything that cannot be reused in some fashion at the end of its useful life.
We can recycle our non-biodegradable waste, such as our bottles and cans, and we can demand that companies only produce things that can be recycled or reused. We can choose to support only those companies that do.
We can purchase quality over quantity and demand that companies start making products that will last, instead of producing things with planned obsolescence as the goal so that we will consume more.
We can simplify our lives and consume less from the start. Do we really need the latest version of this or that? What are the true impacts of consuming and throwing things away within six months of purchase?
We need to work to decrease the overall waste that we produce and compost our organic waste, but we also need to increase methane collection at landfills for energy use. While the world is currently scrambling to find sustainable sources of energy, collecting landfill methane for energy use is taking advantage of a resource that is largely wasted at this point.
While humanity has not yet discovered the perfect solutions to managing our biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, we can all make a difference by reducing, reusing, and recycling. As consumers, we wield great power with our wallets and what we throw away each day!