What Is The Difference Between Biodegradable And Non-Biodegradable Waste?

What Is The Difference Between Biodegradable And Non-Biodegradable Waste?


When it comes to the different types of waste, many of us are aware there is traditional waste and then alternatives that are more eco-friendly. 

Biodegradable waste is made from mostly natural ingredients and expected to break down quickly in a landfill environment, whereas, traditional or non-biodegradable waste can take years, decades or even centuries to break down and is made from chemicals or materials such as crude oil.


What Is Biodegradable Waste?

Biodegradable waste is essentially anything that can break down when exposed to sunlight, composters and other organic materials. This includes compostable items such as fruits, vegetables and the like and also different plastic alternatives.

When it comes to biodegradable plastic, it’s not to be confused with compostable waste which can be completely broken down into natural materials in a worm farm or composter. Biodegradable plastic provides another option for consumers to feel they are protecting the environment. 

The idea of biodegradable plastic is that it will break down faster with specially designed microbes that have the opportunity to break down in months rather than centuries or longer. Biodegradable plastic is also often known as ‘bio-based’ plastic as it still contains some toxic chemicals, unlike compostable plastic. 

Biodegradable plastic is often made by extracting the sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane. These are then converted into polylactic acids. Another way to make biodegradable plastic is to engineer it from microorganisms which are made to break down the plastic quicker.

Compostable plastic is best broken down in an industrial composter as that’s what it is designed for rather than landfill. These composters are set up perfectly with the right temperature, moisture levels, air and other important factors for decomposition. 

Compostable bags won’t decompose well in landfill and contribute to the plastics problem. Typically, in the right environment, a compostable bag will take around 90 days to decompose in a compost bin.


What Is Non-Biodegradable Waste? 

Non-biodegradable waste is typically items that won’t break down quickly and will sit in landfill for a long time. For example, traditional plastic will eventually break down, however, this can take centuries or even thousands of years. The aim with these plastic alternatives – such as compostable and biodegradable plastic – is that they will shorten the process to months or less.

The environment that these plastics are placed in are key to the time it will take to break them down. For example, placed in a landfill, not all biodegradable plastics will decompose quickly. However, when composted through biowaste collection, the plastics can decompose much quicker.

How Long Does It Take For Plastic To Decompose?

What Are The Effects Of Biodegradable Waste In The Environment?

The biggest benefit of using a plastic alternative for your plastic or disposing of biodegradable waste correctly is reducing your environmental footprint. A typical plastic bag for example, can take centuries to thousands of years to break down in landfill and so biodegradable or compostable plastic reduces this time vastly. 

There are also less traditional plastic chemicals in biodegradable plastics which means less environmental issues in the future such as pollution, toxicity and methane production in landfill.

Some benefits of biodegradable waste:

  • Some ingredients are bio-based and will break down into their natural state.
  • Safe for humans, wildlife, animals and the environment (mostly).
  • Less greenhouse emissions released during manufacturing.
  • Less electricity and water used during manufacturing.

It should be noted that biodegradable plastic can leave behind some toxic residue when breaking down, due to the plastic components still present in the plastic.

Read more about the difference between compostable and biodegradable plastics in this article.


What Are The Effects Of Non-Biodegradable Waste On The Environment?

Here are some key reasons plastics and other non-biodegradable waste are being recognised as bad or even toxic options, particularly for single-use items:

  • Plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose or break down in any environment, including landfill. 
  • When plastic decomposes, it breaks down into small pieces that may not be visible to the naked eye, however, these small pieces of plastic will never fully decompose and will potentially contaminate water, soil and air.
  • Plastic can harm wildlife as they can get caught up in plastic – on land and in the ocean – or they can consume small pieces of plastic which will kill them either via choking or other health consequences or injury.
  • The manufacturing process of plastic uses high amounts of electricity and water, while releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
  • Plastic products have been found to be toxic to humans. This is due to the chemicals added to plastics and then absorbed by humans, such as from water or other bottles. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can also be toxic.

Read more about how plastic has been toxic to humans here.


How Should We Dispose Of Different Types Of Waste?

Different types of waste can be best disposed of in different ways – think biodegradable (landfill) versus compostable (composter/worm farm). Some top tips to use alternatives to plastic/non-biodegradable items and how to dispose of them include:

  1. Understand the different plastic alternatives – biodegradable and compostable are two easily available options that can replace many items. Biodegradable goes into landfill and compostable goes into a worm farm or composter.
  2. Identify which plastics you can replace – this could be your shopping carry bags, trash bags, dog poo bags, food and drink containers and disposable cutlery. These can then be either re-used again and again or disposed of as above.
  3. Ensure you dispose anything NOT compostable correctly in your normal waste – don’t try to dispose of in a composter or worm farm but dispose of in your normal waste OR follow your city’s guidelines.
  4. Reduce your plastic use with the above replacements such as fabric shopping bags, metal drink bottles or cutlery, bamboo containers.
  5. Segregate your waste into different bins so they don’t get confused.
  6. Use compostable or biodegradable trash bags where you can and ensure all waste inside is of the same type.



Understanding the different types of waste and their disposal methods is key to reducing your environmental impact. Traditional and biodegradable waste for example, are meant to go into landfill. Whereas, compostable plastic and other waste goes into a composter or worm farm.

Take stock of where you can replace plastic or how you can better dispose of your waste, whether it be by composting or segregating your waste.

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