Waste and sustainability : Biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials
Rubbish, garbage, trash, junk, litter, refuse; we throw stuff out every day and nearly every aspect of our modern life creates some form of waste. We throw waste in the bin and we wash waste products down our drains when bathing and cleaning. But, we live on a finite planet and all the waste we are creating is having a very real and negative impact on the Earth.
Our waste can be recognised as either biodegradable or non-biodegradable and this can be a useful distinction when we consider our product choices and our waste disposal.
Biodegradable matter is generally material from an organic origin that when disposed of will decompose by a natural process. This means it will breakdown and decay into simpler forms of matter.
The process of decomposition is essential within the natural environment for new growth and development of living organisms; it is the way nature is able to recycle the finite matter of the living world. When organic matter breaks down it returns energy and materials used by nature to generate more energy and organic materials. This is the process by which the planet is able to sustain life.
Biodegradable matter is any food scraps, garden waste, or materials or products made from plant or animal derived substances or artificial/man-made materials that are similar enough to organic matter and thus can still be broken down by a natural process.
Non-biodegradable material is in-organic or man-made matter that will not decompose. Any material that is non-biodegradable does not decay or breakdown into simpler forms of matter.
This means that when disposed of by us, nature cannot reuse these materials to fuel the cycle of life and it will remain as pollution in the environment. It also means, all the resources and energy used to make the material in the first place, are trapped within the waste. Because nature cannot breakdown the material the matter and energy cannot be reclaimed and reused by the environment to generate more organic matter and energy.
Relying on non-biodegradable materials and ingredients is an unsustainable and polluting practice. It traps resources and energy that can not be re-claimed in materials that cannot be broken down. Resulting in masses of polluting substances and rubbish that cannot every truly be digested by the planet.
Fortunately we are able to recycle some non-biodegradable waste. Meaning the materials can be reused to make new products and materials. This saves natural resources and reduces the impact of the vast amounts of in-organic waste ending up as landfill and pollution throughout the world.
Where does our waste go?
Our waste can end up in a number of places; landfill and incineration, recycle centres, sanitary sewers or septic tanks, as compost or as litter and pollution in both our natural environment and urban towns and cities. In order to reduce the negative environmental impact of our waste we need to consider where and how we dispose of things.
When we clean our homes and ourselves the products we use end up as waste washed down the drains and into sewers or septic tanks. Sewerage waste is treated with oxygen which changes most of that waste to carbon dioxide and water with some minerals, waste elements and non-biodegradable materials left over. The treated water is then pumped back into a river or ocean. This means that any non-biodegradable matter in the products we use will eventually end up in our waterways.
A great deal of our household and commercial waste ends up in landfill sites which are large holes in the ground filled with all kinds of rubbish. Or in certain areas where there is no space for landfill waste is burned, both practices are damaging to the environment. Luckily we are able to reduce the amount of waste that ends up as landfill or in incinerators by recycling and composting.
But this means we must dispose of our rubbish thoughtfully. When recyclable or biodegradable materials are not disposed of properly and end up as landfill or incinerated they contribute to the mass of non-biodegradable and polluting waste; their potentially reusable and sustainable properties lost.
It is important to try and ensure any biodegradable waste is composted and does not end up in landfill. Landfill is designed to inhibit the natural process of decay as uncontrolled decomposing waste can contribute to ground water pollution, methane gas emission and unstable sub-soil conditions. It has been discovered that many organic materials are “mummified” by the conditions of landfill and do not appear to breakdown or only at a vastly diminished rate.
How can we improve our methods of waste disposal?
- In order to ensure biodegradable waste is disposed of correctly when need to support composting through our local councils or within our own homes and communities
- Create your own compost bin, one that suits your space, needs and lifestyle; we can all compost our kitchen and garden scraps and even newspaper and paper products
- Avoid throwing away any materials that can be reused or recycled. Insure where available they end up in a recycling facility
- Look for cleaning products that clearly state certified biodegradable ingredients
- Look for certified biodegradable alternatives to disposable plastic items
- Reduce consumption of non-biodegradable products by limiting our dependency on plastics, including disposable goods, shopping bags, packaging and wrapping
- Purchase goods made from recyclable materials and always reduce, reuse and recycle
By moving away from a reliance non-biodegradable ingredients and materials we can reduce the amount of toxic waste clogging up the Earth. If we consider the impact of our product choices and dispose of our waste with a little more care, we can improve the sustainability and limit the negative effects of our modern disposable lifestyle.
"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." ~Hellen Keller