People looking to live a greener lifestyle will often stumble across this question:
“Should I buy a product that’s biodegradable or reusable? Which one is better for the environment?”
First of all, we want to pat those people on the back for wanting to support a healthier Earth. For those of you who are here just for curiosity’s sake, welcome! We’re happy to have you here.
But this question is a little more nuanced than you might think. The first answer that pops into your head might not be as accurate as you think.
To give you the best answers possible, we’ll take a look at both options, list their pros and cons, and compare them to each other to see which one comes out on top.
A Look Into Biodegradable and Reusable Products
Without further adieu, let’s jump right in!
Oh, and don’t forget to leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you. Preferably after you read this post.
Overview – Biodegradable Products
First, let’s define what “biodegradable” means.
A quick Google search reveals this definition from Oxford:
“(of a substance or object) capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.”
The keyword being “decomposed”.
For a product to be considered truly biodegradable, it needs to be able to completely degrade into the environment within a reasonable time-span (preferably no longer than a year). It also needs to not release any harmful byproducts as a result of decomposition.
You might be familiar with the term “biodegradable plastic”. These plastics are classified as “bio-based”, which simply means that they come from natural sources like animals, plants, or even micro-organisms.
Materials used to make biodegradable plastic include (but aren’t limited to):
- Corn oil
- Orange peels
Biodegradable plastics are made by melting down of all the materials and then pouring the mixture into molds of various shapes such as plastic water bottles and utensils.
Biodegradability isn’t limited to just plastics. There are many materials that can be considered biodegradable.
Here are a few that we found, some of which surprised us:
- Cotton (used as the #1 clothing material of choice)
- Wood (used in a ton of things from toilet paper to fuel)
- Beeswax (used in candle-making, skincare, and as a wrapping material)
- Flax (used as a nutritional supplement and as an ingredient in many wood finishing products)
- Jute (used to make twine, rope, and mats)
Some materials like polylactic acid (PLA), a widely used “eco-friendly” material, are not biodegradable but rather compostable. Products that use PLA and materials like it may market themselves as biodegradable, but this technically not the case.
Like biodegradable materials, compostable materials will also ultimately break down into harmless environmental resources. However, this will only occur in dedicated composting facilities since these facilities are able to simulate the perfect “break-down” environment.
Composting facilities can alter the temperature and increase the airflow in their controlled environment. By doing so, they are able to accelerate the decomposing process.
Compostable materials will typically decay within 90 – 180 days, though some can take shorter or longer. But without that environment, compostable materials will take a very long time to break down.
In a landfill, this is almost impossible due to the lack of air needed to conduct the decomposing process.
Pros and Cons of Biodegradable Products
Biodegradable products have a unique set of pros and cons.
We’ll talk about the most prevalent ones and why each of them is important to keep in mind.
Biodegradable materials don’t require as much environmental pollution, unlike petroleum-based plastics. For diligent companies, making biodegradable products doesn’t produce any harmful waste!
Biodegradable plastics decompose into harmless, non-toxic materials. They also release only a third of the concentration of greenhouse gases compared to petroleum-based plastics.Biodegradable plastics require approximately 2/3rds less energy than petroleum-based plastics.
Petroleum-based plastics can require 200,000 barrels of oil each day. Biodegradable materials can remove the need to use nonrenewable sources.
Did you know that the compost made in composting facilities can be used as fertilizer? By switching to biodegradable materials, we can reduce the need for landfills.
Landfills are expensive to make and maintain. Those expenses will make their way to the taxpayer. By committing to biodegradable products, you save yourself from being taxed more.
Finally, biodegradable products are just easier. They don’t require you to use them any differently than normal single-use products or do anything different in general.
As a result, they are incredibly convenient. Since people will always seek out the most convenient way to do something, biodegradable products make the transition easy to do and maintain.
Biodegradable materials are made from plants. Therefore, it follows that any contamination subject to plants, like pesticides, can make its way into the product.
Granted, this is unlikely to happen due to strict manufacturing/processing requirements. But it’s important to know that it could happen.
The facilities used to compost eco-friendly materials are also fairly expensive. It takes a lot of energy and, subsequently, money to build and maintain these buildings.
And as you know, these costs end up making their way back to the general public and is part of the reason why biodegradable materials are more expensive than their non-eco-friendly counterparts.
Granted, the cost of a biodegradable product usually isn’t that much higher. The cost of the product wildly varies depending on the industry it’s in.
For example, biodegradable straws aren’t likely to be that much more expensive, if at all. A biodegradable tote bag, however, is going to run you a lot more money.
Finally, there’s the kicker to all of this: biodegradable plastics will NOT degrade in the ocean.
The ocean’s cold waters and lack of air mean that degradation takes a long, long time (not as long as single-use plastic, but still too long).
Even if we wanted to toss biodegradable plastic instead, the problem of having too much plastic in the ocean wouldn’t change.
Overview – Reusable Products
Reusable products are pretty simple. The definition is kind of built into the name.
Technically, any product that can be used multiple times can be called a “reusable product”.
But as a blog that focuses on eco-friendly products, we prefer to define reusable products as products made be used multiple times with eco-friendliness in mind.
This can include using materials made from sustainable resources and minimizing environmental impact from manufacturing/processing.
Pros and Cons of Reusable Products
The birth of eco-friendly, reusable products came as an attempt to mitigate the rampant plastic pollution problem.
Reusable products are designed to last many years and, depending on the company and its practices, are often made from eco-friendly materials.
So let’s explore the pros and cons to see how reusable products stand up.
To start with, reusable products reduce pollution from manufacturing/processing companies. This is because these companies don’t necessarily need to produce as much product if it lasts longer, which in turn reduces the need to harvest new raw materials.
The harvesting of raw materials requires equipment and machines that can produce a lot of pollution, so reducing the need directly reduces the aftermath.
This extends to energy too. Companies don’t need as much energy to process a lower volume of goods from fewer raw materials.
By using reusable products, you won’t need to purchase their plastic counterparts. Bottled water is a big offender in the whole “plastic killing the Earth” problem, which releases an ample amount of greenhouse gases into the environment when decomposing.
This puts a strain on our barely-recovering ozone layer, which we need so that we aren’t exposed to harmful UV rays.
Reusable water bottles solve this problem. No single-use plastic, no problem.
Now, let’s talk about saving money with our favorite example: bottled water vs. tap water.
Now, water bottle companies want you to believe a lot of things, mainly that their water “tastes better” and is “cleaner” since it was sourced from a mountain river. Or something like that.
But this isn’t the case. Not in the slightest.
Believe it or not, tap water is usually either the same or better when compared to bottled water. A study by bu.edu conducted a water taste test and concluded the following result:
“Of 67 taste-testers, only a third identified the tap water sample correctly, according to Phillips, who is also the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Another third thought it was bottled water, and the remaining participants couldn’t tell the difference.”
Remember that tap water is far more regulated and purified than bottle water is required to be. So if most people can’t tell the difference in taste and tap water is likely cleaner than bottled water, why not just drink tap water that’s essentially free?
Plastic water bottles are about 300% more expensive than tap water. The markup that these companies do is insane. Switching to reusable water bottles can save you anywhere from $288 (assuming $6 per 1-week pack) to $384 (assuming $8 per 1-week pack) a year.
You can save a lot of money by switching to a reusable product.
You’d also not be contributing to the massive pile of plastic water bottles in our landfills, which is great!
Now, for some of the downsides to reusable products
Reusable products tend to be less convenient than biodegradable products. While you won’t have to repeatedly purchase them, they typically require a certain degree of upkeep.
Reusable water bottles are notorious for being difficult to clean, especially the cheaper brands. It’s easier to just use it and throw it away.
On that note, reusable products also tend to be more expensive. This makes sense since consumers won’t be buying these products often. The whole point is for them to last longer and be, well, reused.
Keep in mind that since reusable products are made from premium materials designed to last, they will typically require more/better resources from manufacturing companies.
As a result, they almost always command higher prices. But don’t be fooled! You will still save more money with reusable products in the long run.
Finally, sturdy reusable products are rarely biodegradable. When it finally comes time to replace the product, it’s almost never good for the environment. But as we continue to refine the process of making eco-friendly products, we’re confident that this will no longer be the case.
Biodegradable vs. Reusable – Which is Better?
Choose Biodegradable If…
Choose Reusable If…
Biodegradable products and reusable products support the environment in different ways. Whichever one is better is dependent on what you value most.
Want to go eco but don’t want to sacrifice convenience? You’ll be better off using biodegradable products.
Are you looking for the best cost-effective solution? Reusable products will save in the long run, but biodegradable ones won’t cost you as much in the beginning.
Want to tackle climate change? Reusable products don’t give off greenhouse gases, but biodegradable products do when they decompose (in much smaller amounts than normal plastic, however).
Each has its own merits. For us personally, we slightly prefer reusable products since they tend to be easier to find, and we don’t mind the upkeep associated with them.
So which is better? Biodegradable or reusable?
Ultimately, it’s up to you. We know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s the truth.
No matter which one you choose, you’ll be striving towards a greener, better Earth. And really, that’s all we could ask for.
So pick one! It doesn’t really matter as long as you make an honest effort towards eco-friendly living. You’ll be happy that you did, we promise!
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Until next time, stay safe and have a great day!