Now that the topic is being talked about more frequently, one might think that understanding the concept of sustainability is a simple task. However, the "green" jargon is full of trickery, primarily when you convince us to select an "eco-friendly" option or buy a "sustainable" product.

With the ease of the internet and social media, more and more information is available on conscious eating, responsible consumption, slow fashion, and waste reduction. In short, sustainable living. The issue is that "more information" is not necessarily the same as "better information". It is easy to lose track and confuse relevant data with improvised ones, critical information with the desire to sell.

Biodegradable.

For starters, let's turn to the dictionary definition (from the RAE, more precisely), which says it all and says nothing:

Biodegradable From bio- and degradable.

1. adj. Chem. Said of a substance: That degraded by biological action.

If we go to the etymological roots, we have:

Greek βιος (bios=life).

The Latin prefix de- (direction from top to bottom / away / deprivation).

Latin gradus (degree)

The Latin suffix -able (indicating possibility).

And finally, we cannot stay without reviewing the Wikipedia definition:

Biodegradable is the product or substance that can decompose into its constituent chemical elements due to the action of biological agents, such as plants, animals, microorganisms, and fungi, under natural environmental conditions.

So far, we could think that everything is clear and that if something is biodegradable, it is the most. However, if we stop to analyze the meaning of the word, we will see that "biodegradable" is nothing more than a characteristic... it is not a guarantee of anything. It's like saying something is solid, or liquid, or big, or small. It's characteristic, and that's it.

I know that deep down, we want that word to have more. Well, more meaningful meaning; we want to believe that "biodegradable" guarantees us a lower environmental impact. And that's precisely where the catch is.

Biodegradability is a property of a material, not a guarantee of environmental benefits.

But What does that mean? Well, biodegradability it's not as if it were a sacred balm of sustainable living. In short: biodegradability - like sustainability - is a complex issue that generates complex questions, and challenging questions do not have easy answers. Good thing we like challenges. Right?

1. Bread is biodegradable.

If a piece of bread ends up in the ground (where it will come into contact with water and oxygen), over time, it will biodegrade, and the time will come when it will "disappear" altogether. But it does not disappear but is converted into other things, such as carbon dioxide and other compounds that the soil uses as nutrients.

If the same piece of bread (which is 100% biodegradable) ends up in a landfill (where the conditions are entirely different from those of garden soil), the molecules cannot degrade in the same way, cannot be integrated as nutrients in the ground, and what they do is generate methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So a biodegradable product in a landfill causes a double negative: mountains of garbage that do not integrate into the soil and contribute to global warming. (One more reason to radically reduce your waste).

2. There are biodegradable plastics.

All plastics are technically degradable, even those made from petroleum. But in most cases, it takes so long (hundreds or thousands of years) that in practical terms, they are considered non-degradable. And, in any case, when they degrade, they leave a lot of toxic stuff in the ground, so it doesn't look good, no matter where you look at it.

But yes, there are also plant-based plastics, which are supposed to be "more biodegradable" this may sound like an invention of the century, the solution we've been looking for, but no, it's not. Biodegradable plastics bring a whole host of other drawbacks, sometimes even worse than those of conventional petroleum-based plastics.

I won't go on too long - the subject deserves a whole publication - but I'll tell you the main problems:

  • Its production requires enormous land, pesticides, and machinery that also uses fossil fuels.
  • The raw material is usually corn, so the production of "bioplastics" puts food security at risk in many parts of the world.
  • They are usually biodegradable only in controlled environments.
  • They continue to promote a throwaway mentality; with the aggravating factor that many people think they have less impact on the environment because they are biodegradable. They have less impact on the environment, so they use them in an even more uncontrolled and unconscious way.

3. Paper is biodegradable.

Yes, and it is also one of the main protagonists of landfills. We have already seen- things that do not biodegrade surrounded by unicorns and rainbows but create huge pollution problems and intensify global warming. In the USA, in 2009, there were 26 million tons. And it is estimated that 68 million trees a year are needed to meet the demand for paper in that country alone.