What Does Biodegradable Mean?
Biodegradable means that a product can be broken down quickly and efficiently by the natural environment. This happens when microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi consume the product and turn it back into raw materials. Every material on earth will eventually decompose like this, but the label ‘biodegradable’ draws a line between things that can break down quickly versus things that take a long time to decompose. In general, biodegradable materials are natural and organic. Some examples include fruits, vegetables, paper and other natural materials.
On the other end of the spectrum we have non-biodegradable materials. These materials do not break down easily by natural means – they will eventually break down but it takes a long time to do so. Because they have nowhere to go for years and years, they pile up in our landfills, taking dozens or hundreds of years to break down. Plastics and glass are two examples of non-biodegradable materials.
To truly understand the big difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable items, check out this list of the time it takes different materials to decompose:
- Paper Towel: 2-4 weeks
- Orange or Banana Peel: 2-5 weeks
- Newspaper: 6 weeks
- Apple Core: 2 months
- Plywood: 1-3 years
- Plastic Bag: 10-20 years
- Tin Can: 50 years
- Aluminium Can: 80-200 years
- Disposable Diapers: 450 years
- Plastic Beverage Bottle: 450 years
- Glass Bottle: 1 million years
In addition to referring to how long it takes to break something down, biodegradable also means that something can be broken down safely. Biodegradable items will break down into organic materials, such as carbon, nitrogen and water, which can be used to create new life. Non-biodegradable, synthetic items can break down into harmful chemicals that pollute the land, water and air.
Why Is Biodegradable Important?
The process of decomposition is a natural part of the earth’s cycle. Old materials die and become food for micro-organisms, which then break down into organic nutrients, which can then be reborn as new materials. This recycling process is part of the carbon cycle.
Biodegradable products are safe for the environment because they work into nature’s regular cycle and contribute to the natural rhythm of life. On the other hand, non-biodegradable materials can stick around for years and have devastating consequences to our land, air and water as they decompose and release harmful chemicals into the environment.
It’s important to note that biodegradable refers to more than just the package. A biodegradable product is one whose inside components also break down safely. For example, a biodegradable sunscreen is one whose ingredients break down in safe ways and are free of harmful chemicals that could be released to the environment.
What Does Reef Safe Mean?
Reef safe is a specific statement that says: as this product breaks down it will not harm coral reefs or the ocean environment. Once again, you may think mainly about pollution from containers and packages that get thrown into the ocean, but reef safe also refers to the contents inside the product.
The most popular example is reef safe sunscreen. A reef safe sunscreen is made without chemicals that are known to harm coral reefs. Since sunscreen comes off when you get wet, these chemicals can get released into the water and harm the ocean environment. A reef safe sunscreen contains mineral ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide instead of these harmful chemicals.
Why Is Reef Safe Important?
In 2008, National Geographic published an alarming study. They found that four chemicals commonly found in sunscreens (paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone and a camphor derivative) are harming coral reefs. These chemicals can awaken a coral virus, which causes algae that normally feed the coral to explode. As a result, the coral turns white (a phenomenon known as bleaching) and then dies.
Scientists estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off of swimmers each year, threatening up to 10 percent of coral reefs. Reefs provide a habitat for thousands of fish and other animals. They are also important for tourism and creating medicines. When sunscreen chemicals threaten our reefs, they also threaten countless lives.
Now that you understand more about how products break down and how they impact the environment, you can see that ‘biodegradable’ and ‘reef safe’ are important characteristics that promote a healthy environment. When it comes to sunscreen, which comes off and breaks down in the water, biodegradable and reef safe are labels to look for in order to keep the natural beauty of the coral reefs alive.