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Biodegradability refers to a material being able to break down into naturally-occurring compounds in a reasonable time scale. Our group has not strictly defined biodegradability, but we have discussed different definitions, and the degree to which we consider certain definitions or uses of the term to be honest or deceptive.

Biodegradability is important mainly for products like packaging, which are often made of plastics. It is less important for products like ceramics or glass, which are chemically inert and function similarly to natural clays, rocks, or glass particles in the environment after they are discarded.

The importance of biodegradability

Biodegradability is an important factor in our philosophy of product design, impacting sustainability as well as other values we consider an important part of a healthy state for society. Biodegradability facilitates composting, a practice which can promote sustainability in multiple ways, such as by turning what would be waste into a valuable resource.

Having disposable products and packaging be biodegradable also helps to reduce the impact of littering, which can have positive impacts on communities in which litter is a problem.

Much trash enters the ocean, and other wild ecosystems, where it can pose various problems for wildlife, the environment, and humans (such as bioaccumulation of PCB's in fish that humans eat). Biodegradability helps prevent these problems as well.

"Biodegradable" label in marketing

We consider it dishonest or deceptive to label a product as "biodegradable" if it is not fully biodegradable under normal environmental conditions, such as if the product is littered on the ground, or enters the ocean.

So, for example, we would consider it dishonest to market the following as biodegradable:

  • a tea bag sealed with a small amount of non-biodegradable sealant
  • a plastic that physically breaks down into small particles which persist in the environment for a long time without being broken down into naturally-occurring substances
  • any product that can be broken down only under specific conditions that may not exist somewhere in nature where the product could end up, but where other organic materials would break down, for example, a product that would not break down in a lake, in the ocean, or in the soil. It would not be an issue if the product does not break down under conditions (like away from water and sunlight, or in extreme cold) where other organic matter would not break down.