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The capacity of a natural environment to chemically break down an object is referred to as biodegradability. Some materials break down into organic parts far faster than others, leading them to be referred to as biodegradable. Measuring the biodegradability of an object can determine how long it will last in its current form.
The process that causes biodegradability is essentially decomposition, or rotting. A buried or abandoned object is slowly taken apart by surrounding microorganisms, bacteria, and exposure to the elements. While observable breakdown is visible in some items within hours, other materials may remain essentially unchanged for centuries or even millennia. This leads to considerable concern about the amount of non-biodegradable trash created through human consumption, and has lead to a push to use more biodegradable products.
Typically, materials constructed from plant or animal material have a high rate of biodegradability. Paper, made mostly from tree pulp, will degrade fairly quickly in a natural environment, because the Earth naturally contains the microorganisms to break such material down. Materials that are primarily man-made, on the other hand, do not necessarily have naturally occurring mechanisms to break the material down.
Biodegradability is an important part of discussions on ecology. Throughout the world, landfills are built as enormous trash pits for refuse of all kinds. While biodegradable materials will quickly break down and become organic materials, slowly degrading material, such as heavy plastic, will last for centuries. The durability of non-biodegradable substances quickly pushes landfills over their capacity and can lead to a crunch for waste-storing space. Studies of landfills have also shown that the artificial environment within the landfill itself may not be conducive to biodegradability, as the refuse may not receive enough light or have the proper interaction with microorganisms necessary to cause decay.
Since the importance of biodegradability became clear, many manufacturers have made great strides in improving the biodegradability of common products. Packing materials, for example, are often made of easily recyclable and quickly degrading paper, as opposed to the previously popular and slow decaying Styrofoam or plastic packing material. New formulas for plastic have been created that allow faster biodegradation by lowering the molecular weight of the components.
To help slow landfill expansion, consumers may want to look for products that are made mostly of natural ingredients. Some green-savvy companies will even list products as biodegradable, in the hope of attracting customers interested in preventing the spread of waste. Since using entirely natural products is somewhat difficult to manage, try to reuse and recycle slow-decaying products like plastic water bottles when possible.