Biodegradable Materials: The Simple Guide for Eco-minded People [2021]

Unsplash - Biodegradable Cups

Biodegradable materials are materials that can safely be disposed of in the natural environment, where they decompose and breakdown completely, in the presence of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi found in soil. A truly biodegradable material breaks down completely in less than a year and leaves behind no residues or traces.

As we move towards more sustainable ways to live, we’re increasingly looking for materials that are eco-friendly and do not contribute to our huge waste crisis.

There are hundreds of options to choose from but not all of them are as great as they sound. That’s why we have compiled this list of the 9 best biodegradable materials and where to find them!

Biodegradable Plastics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Truth

Most biodegradable materials are untreated natural materials, like wood or bamboo. However, in recent years the fight against plastic and the global move towards sustainability have highlighted the need for alternatives to plastic that can fulfill the same functions.

Conventional plastics are made from fossil fuels, which are a finite resource. The extraction of fossil fuels and the processes required to transform them into plastic create huge amounts of pollution. Carbon emissions, land degradation, water pollution… The environmental cost of creating cheap plastic is huge!

In addition to the impacts of manufacturing conventional plastic, there is the truly massive problem of what to do with it once we have made it. Only around 10% of all plastic is currently recycled. The other 90% either goes to landfills or ends up in the ocean and other sensitive natural environments, where it does not breakdown for hundreds of years and never truly decomposes.

The Good

Bio-plastics are one such alternative and are becoming more readily available for use in everything from product packaging to disposable cutlery.

At a glance, bio-plastics are a dream come true – plastic with all the advantages and none of the terrible downsides! They’re made from plant-based raw materials and biodegradable.

However, bio-plastics are not all as wonderful as they sound. One of the most widely used bio-plastics is Polylactic acid (PLA). It is used widely across the USA. The manufacturing process generates far less pollution than conventional plastics and it is made from a carbon-neutral resource (commercially grown corn).

The Bad

The problem is with its disposal. While it is, technically, biodegradable it will only biodegrade in very specific conditions (very high temperatures, high levels of oxygen) that are not found in a home composting bin or any commercial landfill site.

PLA has to go to a specialized composting facility, where it can be composted at high temperatures and in the presence of ample oxygen. These facilities are not readily accessible to the average consumer and many PLA items either go to landfills or are sent to plastic recycling facilities, which are not equipped to handle them.

In a home compost bin, a landfill, or the natural environment they behave just like any other plastic, taking years to breakdown. This means that unless they go to a very specific and not easily accessible composting facility – they’re really no better than the conventional plastic they’re replacing in terms of waste and post-consumer pollution.

The Ugly

PLA plastic bags have been found intact after more than 3 years in the natural environment. They have been found in the ocean and along beaches, where they’re just like conventional plastic. Unless they go to a specific facility, they’re just as bad as plastic but people don’t realize this because they’re ‘biodegradable’.

The Good Again

The good news is that other kinds of bio-plastics do fully biodegrade, in less than a year, in regular composting conditions. These bio-plastics are newer and less widely used than PLAs but they’re fully compostable at home, in the natural environment, and landfills. Some of them also use waste materials like agricultural waste or agricultural by-products as raw materials, which has helped to bring the price down and make them cost-competitive with conventional plastics and PLAs.

Check out this short video by Earth911TV that explains the difference between biodegradable and compostable:

9 Best Biodegradable Materials

#1: Bamboo

Biodegradable Materials - Bamboo Cutlery Set

Bamboo is a completely natural, renewable resource that grows rapidly and abundantly in many different climates. It is a crop that regrows after harvesting without needing to be replanted so it is also a good option for soil health and uses less water than other timber crops.

Bamboo makes a great alternative to plastic and has replaced plastic in everything from toothbrushes to cutlery and crockery.

Where It’s Used:

Bamboo has become one of the most popular and versatile materials. It is used in everything from textiles (viscose is a Bamboo fiber) to wooden items like reusable cutlery and drinking straws, water bottles, furniture, paper and many, many more.     

Pros & Cons

The pros and cons of Bamboo vary depending on the specific product and application. However, the general benefits and disadvantages are:

Pros

  • Fast-growing, sustainable crop that uses little water and is naturally pest-resistant
  • Versatile, flexible, and durable material
  • Easily accessible and inexpensive

Cons

  • Susceptible to pests and mold unless it is chemically treated
  • Irresponsibly grown Bamboo may spread rapidly and invade nearby ecosystems
  • May cause allergies in susceptible people

Where to buy: Amazon has a huge variety of Bamboo products!

#2: Cork

Cork Bags

Cork is an incredible material! It comes from the bark of the Cork Oak (Quercus suber) tree. It is light, waterproof, buoyant, elastic, and has fire-retardant properties. Cork is an incredibly versatile material and makes a great alternative to plastics, foam, leather, wood, and some fabrics.

It is fully biodegradable and recyclable. Cork is also harvested from mature trees, that do not need to be cut down for harvesting, which makes them a very sustainable crop. Also, Cork Oaks absorb more carbon after the bark has been harvested, as the trees kick into overdrive to regrow the bark!

Where It’s Used:

Cork is very versatile and it is used in a huge number of different applications! You can find cork in almost everything: wine bottle corks, flooring, purses and wallets, shoe soles, insulation, coasters, building blocks, buoys, musical instruments, and sports equipment. It replaces plastic and leather very well, so you can often find a cork alternative for anything that needs something waterproof and pliable.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Bridgeable, recyclable, and a very sustainable (carbon negative) crop
  • Extremely versatile – a huge number of different uses
  • Lightweight, durable, pliable, buoyant, fire- and water-resistant material

Cons

  • None – nothing but love here!

Where to buy: You can find Cork in a wide variety of forms and an even wider variety of products on Amazon.

#3: Tipa Bio-plastic Polymers

Biodegradable Materials - Tipa Plastic - IG

Tipa makes resin, multi-layer film structures, and laminates for use in any packaging that requires something sealable, transparent, waterproof and that can be printed on.

Tipa bio-plastics are completely biodegradable and home compostable. They’re made from plant-based materials that break down just like plant matter does!

Where It’s Used:

Tipa plastic is used mainly as an alternative to plastic packaging in the food and fashion industries – for everything from garment bags to bread bags and salad packs. They also make laminates that can be used in several other applications, like tea bags and zipper bags.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Fully biodegradable and home compostable
  • Transparent, durable, waterproof, printable and sealable
  • Laminates can be used in place of conventional plastics, without needing specialized machinery or printers

Cons

  • Not yet widely available
  • Uses a limited to packaging at present
  • No consumable items available at present

Where to buy: Contact TIPA directly for sales.

#4: Mycelium

Biodegradable Mycelium Lamps

Mycelium is the fibrous root structure of mushroom fungi. As a material, it is grown in a mold with agricultural by-products and waste (shredded corn stems, hemp hurds, etc.) to give it structure and nutrients. It grows rapidly into any shape or form the mold is in. When it is fully grown, it is baked to kill the fungi and the material that remains is incredibly versatile, durable and even edible!

It is fully biodegradable and compostable and is made using agricultural waste, making it a very eco-friendly option!

Where It’s Used:

Mycelium is mainly used as an alternative to Styrofoam and plastic foam, wood composites and plastics. It is great for thermal insulating and protective packaging, which is fully waterproof and designed to replace Styrofoam packaging. Mycelium is also used in a wide range of other products like soap dishes, seed starter trays, planter pots and cooler boxes.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Uses agri-waste as part of the construction process
  • Highly versatile material, suitable for a wide range of uses
  • One of only a handful of effective Styrofoam alternatives available

Cons

  • It is not yet readily accessible and can be a little on the pricey side
  • Limited aesthetic styles available

Where to buy: You can find Mycelium products from various places online, including Ecovative Design, Flow and Chaos, and Lush Cosmetics.

#5: Hemp

Biodegradable Materials - Hemp Throw Pillows

Hemp variety of the Cannabis (C. sativa) plant that is grown specifically for industrial use. It is similar to Bamboo in that it grows phenomenally fast and is hardy to a wide variety of climates. Hemp has been used as a natural fiber for textiles for over 50 000 years! The plant material can also be refined into many different forms and is used for a wide variety of products.

Hemp is completely biodegradable and a very sustainable crop. It uses little water and grows almost anywhere. It doesn’t require extensive use of pesticides and is a very renewable crop as it grows exceptionally fast.

Where It’s Used:

Hemp has many different commercial uses, including yarn and textiles for fabrics to make clothing and home furnishings, rope and paper. It is also used to make paint, insulation, bio-fuel and biodegradable plastics. More recently, there are an abundance of products that contain hemp oil, including soaps and cosmetics.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Versatile, strong and durable material (three times the tensile strength of cotton)
  • Very sustainable crop: fast-growing, low water usage, minimal pesticide usage
  • Not produced on a mass scale so buying Hemp products supports smaller businesses

Cons

  • Fabric creases easily and dyed colors tend to fade (like most natural plant fibers)
  • Not produced at scale so it tends to be on the expensive side
  • Some people have a negative association with Hemp because it comes from the same plant species as Marijuana

Where to buy: You can find a variety of Hemp products on Amazon, including shoes, clothing, cosmetics, supplements, and yarn.

#6: Jute

Biodegradable Jute Basket

Jute is a natural plant fiber made from the Jute plant (Corchorus sp.). The hardy fiber is most widely known for its use as burlap and hessian. It is one of the most widely produced (second only to cotton) and cheapest natural fibers. It used to make burlap and hessian but it is also used to make many beautiful, high-end items too. Jute rugs and clothing made from Jute fabric are especially popular.

Jute is completely biodegradable and pure Jute can be composted at home. It grows abundantly and is a very hardy crop that is naturally resistant to pests and diseases. It does not require extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers, and it uses less water than many other plant crops.

Where It’s Used:

Jute is used to make yarn, textiles and rope. The texture may be thick and coarse or fine and smooth, depending on how it is processed. It is commonly used in the form of burlap or hessian and thick ropes. However, it is also used to make beautiful textiles, including baskets, carpets and rugs. Fabric made from Jute is much more refined and many beautiful, high-end products are made with Jute. These include bags and home décors, like cushions and drapes.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Very sustainable crop that does not require large volumes of water, fertilizers and pesticides
  • Easily available and quite inexpensive
  • Very strong fiber that can be used in a wide range of products, from rough to refined

Cons

  • None – nothing but Jute love here!

Where to buy: Jute products are widely available, online and offline, but Esty has some particularly nice Jute items!

#7: Wood

Biodegradable Materials - Wooden Lights

Wood is one of the staple materials that we use in almost every industry. From chairs to ships, at some point, someone has made it out of wood! Wood was once the staple material but cheaper, lighter materials like hard plastic and aluminum have pushed wood a little to the side over the last couple of decades.

As a natural plant material, untreated wood is completely biodegradable. Commercially grown trees are a renewable resource and contribute to carbon reduction from the atmosphere. There any many crops that are more sustainable than timber, but when compared to the environmental impacts of plastic manufacturing, timber is a much, much better option.

Where It’s Used:

Wood is used across almost every industry, on every scale. When it comes to choosing products that are made out of wood as an alternative to synthetic, non-biodegradable, materials you can find some incredible items that you might not expect, like cutlery and crockery, made out of wood.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Sustainable, renewable resource
  • Incredibly versatile, durable and attractive
  • Readily available and inexpensive

Cons

  • Untreated wood is permeable and susceptible to water damage
  • Wooden items often need to be thicker and heavier than the same item in metal or plastic
  • Untreated wood is susceptible to pests like termites

Where to buy: While you can find wooden products literally everywhere, you can find a particularly nice selection Etsy, including home décor, utensils and bowls, accessories and many, many more!  

#8: Areca Palm Leaf  

Biodegradable Materials - Palm Leaf Plates

Areca Palm leaves fall naturally from the palm trees growing in Areca Nut plantations. In most instances, these leaves are gathered and burned. However, they can also be soaked and pressed into shapes to make plates, bowls and cups that are completely natural and biodegradable!

They’re made from leaves that fall naturally and no trees are cut to obtain the leaves. As such, they do not contribute to deforestation and do not require any direct cultivation, as they’re a by-product of other agricultural activities. They’re completely biodegradable and home compostable.

Where It’s Used:

Areca Palm leaves are used to make plates, bowls and cups that replace disposable plastic ones. Cafes and restaurants use them, as well as individuals who use them at parties and private events. You can also get many other items made from palm leaves, like home décor and storage containers.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Very sustainable as they’re made from an agricultural by-product
  • Beautiful, lightweight alternative that is much more attractive than plastic
  • Suitable for use in a microwave and hand washable

Cons

  • Less durable than plastic
  • Colors are limited
  • Designed to replace a disposable product so they’re not long-lasting

Where to buy: Areca Palm Leaf Plates are available from large retailers, online and offline, as well as from smaller manufacturers. You can find them on Amazon here. You can also buy them from Leef, who promise to buy and conserve 1 square meter of threatened rainforest for every plate you buy through their Leef Unlimited non-profit organization, in partnership with the World Land Trust!

#9: Avocado Bio-Plastic

Biodegradable Materials - Biofase Avocado Plastic

Biofase is a bio-plastic made from Avocado seeds, a by-product of Avocado farming. The bio-plastic is a true biodegradable plastic and is home compostable. Biofase makes straws and cutlery as an eco-friendly alternative for conventional plastic ones.

Where It’s Used:

Biofase straws and cutlery are great for restaurants and cafes, as well as retail stores and individuals – anyone who uses or supplies plastic straws and cutlery can use bio-plastic ones instead.

Pros & Cons:

Pros

  • Completely biodegradable, even at home
  • Sustainable resource as they’re made from an agricultural by-product
  • Resilient and hardwearing, which means they can be reused several times

Cons

  • Currently limited to straws and cutlery
  • Not a long-lasting product (reusable up to 8 or 10 times)
  • Limited color selection

Where to buy: You can find them on various online stores, including on Amazon.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are thousands of great products made from completely biodegradable materials that are also environmentally friendly and sustainable. We hope this list of the 9 best biodegradable materials helps you identify and find the best eco-friendly alternatives next time you’re in the market to buy something!

References

BBC: What ‘biodegradable’ Really Means

Dezeen: Bioplastics Could be “just as bad if not worse” for the Planet than Fossil-fuel Plastics

Scientific American: The Environmental Impact of Corn-Based Plastics

Smithsonian Magazine: Corn Plastic to the Rescue

Webstaurant: Biodegradable, Compostable, and Degradable: What’s the Difference?

Frequently Asked Questions

What are biodegradable materials?

Biodegradable materials are materials that can safely and effectively break down or decompose, in the presence of oxygen and natural organisms like bacteria, to completely natural elements. Composting is a good example of biodegradation. Check out the full article for more info!

Is biodegradable the same as compostable?

Not necessarily. Composting is biodegradation under normal, natural conditions. However, some materials cannot be composted but will still biodegrade in the right conditions. An example of this Polylactic Acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic that will only biodegrade at very high temperatures and in the presence of ample oxygen, which are not found in natural conditions. Read more about PLAs in the full article.

Is compostable better than biodegradable?

Usually, yes. Compostable materials break down more easily and quicker than non-compostable biodegradable materials and no not need specialized facilities. Read more about this in the full article.

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