Not as easy as it seems: On being biodegradable

So I’ve really been focusing on biodegradable products as of late. A lot of my stated goals have had to do with implementing biodegradable products into my household. Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize, via different informational articles, that just because something is in fact biodegradable, doesn’t mean it’s actually going to have the chance to break down properly. Bottom line: biodegradable items need to be disposed of properly in order to truly biodegrade, as it were.

Take for example, biodegradable leaf bags – made from corn. If you simply dispose of the leaf bags into normal trash, it’s very unlikely that these bags will have the chance to properly breakdown. Why? Because they’re thrown into landfills, which don’t foster the proper environmental conditions for biodegradable material to break down. However, if you were to dispose of those biodegradable leaf bags into a compost pile, the bag will in fact be able to properly break down, as compost piles provide ideal conditions for this sort of thing.

Here’s an excerpt from an article on

“Many products that are inherently biodegradable in soil-such as tree trimmings, food wastes, and paper-will not biodegrade when we place them in landfills because the artificial landfill environment lacks the light, water, and bacterial activity required for the decay process to begin. The Garbage Project, an anthropological study of our waste conducted by a group at the University of Arizona, has unearthed hot dogs, corn cobs, and grapes that were twenty-five years old and still recognizable, as well as newspapers dating back to 1952 that were still easily readable. When the conditions needed for biodegradable materials to naturally biodegrade are not provided, major garbage problems are the result.”

Here’s how long it takes for some commonly used products to biodegrade, when they are scattered about as litter:

Cotton rags 1-5 months
Paper 2-5 months
Rope 3-14 months
Orange peels 6 months
Wool socks 1 to 5 years
Cigarette butts 1 to 12 years
Plastic coated paper milk cartons 5 years
Leather shoes 25 to 40 years
Nylon fabric 30 to 40 years
Tin cans 50 to 100 years
Aluminum cans 80 to 100 years
Plastic 6-pack holder rings 450 years
Glass bottles 1 million years
Plastic bottles Forever

So now, I’m faced with a dilemma: if I want to use biodegradable products will I be able to dispose of them properly?

One item I’m sorry I bought: biodegradable doggy bags. Once used, I throw these in normal trash cans, as I don’t have a special composter that can safely break down animal waste. Therefore, my using them is pointless. The same goes for biodegradable kitchen waste bags – these will get thrown into landfills, too.

So, with all this said, I’ve determined the following:

Biodegradable solvents are still usuable
Biodegradable bags for landfill waste are not
Biodegradable bags for compostable waste are still usuable (leaf bags, kitchen compost bags)


2 Responses

  1. So why not compost the leaves? Leaf compost is awesome mulch: will save water, add nutrients to your soil, protect against the cold winter. You guys have room, maybe you could build a box out of 4x4s and chicken wire. Then you don’t need the bags, even. Just pile em in a big trashcan, shove the weed wacker in there for a few secs and voila: your leaves are now helping make your yard nicer.

  2. Hey Allen!

    Yeah – the composter is on the list for sure. I’m angling for a self-rotating composter for Christmas this year, we’ll see. I guess I was just disappointed to find out the cold hard facts behind biodegradable items. BUT, once we a composter in place, we’ll be able to start throwing some of those items in with our compostables. Well, except for the doggy-doo-doo bags!!!

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