Green waste 101: What is biodegradable and non-biodegradable?

A young girl and boy discussing what is biodegradable out of the foods they're putting in their food waste bin

Any conversations relating to sustainability and environmental awareness typically involve references to biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials. But do we truly understand what is biodegradable? What does biodegradable mean? Let us de-mystify this buzzword and explain what biodegradable materials are (and what aren’t), and how choosing the right biodegradable products could help you reduce your waste long-term.

What does biodegradable mean?

Let’s start with a definition. If something is biodegradable, it means it can decay naturally, in a non-harmful way. Put simply, it’s organic matter that can be decomposed of by bacteria or other living organisms.

There are obvious environmental benefits to biodegradable materials that break down quickly: instead of taking years they breakdown and save landfill space. It’s worth bearing in mind that some products that are biodegradable can take years to break down fully, though, such as steel, which will eventually rust and disintegrate, but only after a very long time.

Compost-friendly materials versus biodegradable materials

It’s also worth noting that some packaging and products are compost-friendly rather than biodegradable, which means they include organic matter that easily breaks down. It’s a subtle difference, but biodegradable items are capable of decomposing with help from bacteria and other biological agents.

There are certain conditions that encourage the process of biodegradability – the kind of conditions you find out in nature or in home-compost-heaps, such as bacteria, water and light. These conditions aren’t necessarily found in landfills. So, if you can, dispose of biodegradable materials in a compost heap, rather than sending to landfill.

What are biodegradable materials?

Even with a clear definition, it can be tricky to figure out exactly what is biodegradable material, and what isn’t. Here are some typically biodegradable materials:

  • Food waste
  • Human waste
  • Animal waste
  • Plant products
  • Paper
  • Kitchen paper e.g. Plenty
  • Natural wood
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves

By learning what is biodegradable material you can start to make more informed choices about the products you buy.


Not only is Plenty kitchen paper bio-degradable, it can also be home-composted in around 50 days, making it an eco-minded choice whilst also being a powerhouse for cleaning.

What’s the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable?

We’ve got to grips with what is biodegradable, but what about the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials?

As we’ve seen, biodegradable things break down into natural materials in the soil, without leaving toxins behind that damage the environment. So, what about non-biodegradable? Meaning materials that break down in a more harmful way, this refers to anything that leaves behind damaging substances or chemicals.

Non-biodegradable meaning revealed: What is non-biodegradable?

So that’s the definition and differences sorted, but in terms of actual materials, what is non-biodegradable? Non-biodegradable wastes include:

  • Plastics – such as bags, bottles etc.  
  • Man-made fibres – such as nylon
  • Certain construction waste – such as rubber tyres
  • Electrical hardware – such as cables, wires, DVDs, mobile phones etc.
  • Chemically treated wood

Now that you know the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials, you can help educate your friends and family, and use your buying power to help the planet!


Germs love clinging to cloths and sponges, so when wiping around germy areas, use a fresh sheet of strong kitchen paper, like Plenty and pop it in the bin afterwards. That way, you’ll avoid transferring germs to other surfaces.

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