What are biodegradable polymers and is it worth using them?

1 August 2022

Overview of covered topics

What are biodegradable polymers and is it worth using them?

One of the environmentally friendly alternatives to plastics are biodegradable plastics. For many people, these are mysterious materials, but in this article you will learn what they are, how long they take to decompose and whether they can completely replace traditional plastic in your company.

Biodegradable plastics are those that biodegrade, i.e., instead of remaining durable for hundreds of years, they decompose under the influence of bacteria, air, water, light or a specific combination of these factors. Their role is to reduce the amount of waste in the environment, as well as to reduce the consumption of natural resources that are not renewable. And although this role seems clear, and for many companies an ecological approach means more sales, there is some controversy around biodegradable packaging.

From this article you will learn:

  • what are biodegradable plastics?
  • what types of biodegradable plastics are there?
  • what are the advantages of using biodegradable plastics?
  • what are the alternatives to biodegradable plastics?

What are biodegradable plastics and what are their types?

Biodegradability is a process that is not fully understood by some, and biodegradable plastic sounds like a contradictory concept. But it is thanks to biodegradation that plastic objects and packaging can be transformed into water, carbon dioxide or biomass.

Never before have companies needed alternatives to traditional plastic so urgently. This is related to both depleting oil deposits and concern for the environment. Work on creating materials that have similar properties to traditional plastic, but do not pollute the planet for hundreds of years, began in the 1960s. These materials are not the discovery of the year, but a material that scientists have been developing for decades. The classification of biodegradable plastics includes:

  • Oxo-biodegradable plastics – consist of traditional plastic and the addition of substances that accelerate decomposition. They decompose under the influence of light and oxygen.
  • Photobiodegradable plastics react to ultraviolet rays.
  • Hydrobiodegradable plastics composed entirely of plant substances (e.g. starch). They decompose through the process of hydrolysis.
  • Bio-based bioplastics – consist wholly or partially of bio-based polymers. Not all of them are biodegradable.
  • Bioplastics of synthetic origin come from synthetic polymers, e.g. produced using crude oil.

If you are considering products made of biodegradable plastics, just like in the case of classic plastic, you will have many materials to choose from. There are at least 10 types of biodegradable plastics:

  • Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs)
  • Polylactic acid (PLA)
  • Starch mixtures
  • Cellulose-based plastics
  • Lignin-based polymer composites
  • Polyglycolic acid (PGA)
  • Polycaprolactone (PCL)
  • Poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA, PVOH)
  • Polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT)

How long do biodegradable plastics take to decompose?

Some biodegradable plastics decompose faster than others. The key is not only the type of material, but also the environmental conditions surrounding the material. The time needed for the biodegradation of plastics depends on the type of plastic and the place where the product goes – sometimes the key element is temperature, other times the presence of microorganisms.

Biodegradable plastics can only biodegrade when certain atmospheric conditions are met. Otherwise, these plastics may break down into microscopic pieces (e.g. in the ocean) and pollute the environment with microplastics.

What industries use biodegradable plastics?

So that all this does not sound so theoretical, it is worth mentioning specific industries and products that are often produced from biodegradable plastics.

Belong to them:

  • packaging
  • bottles
  • carrier bags
  • garbage bags and organic waste
  • gardening and agricultural foils
  • disposable cutlery, cups and plates
  • food containers
  • agricultural tools
  • flowerpots
  • toys
  • pens
  • disposable technical fabrics
  • medical supplies (e.g. surgical sutures)
  • and many others.

The packaging, medical, agriculture, toys and textile industries most often use biodegradable plastics. The offer of products made of biodegradable plastics is consistently expanded, but they are most often used to make single-use products.

Don't wait!

Tailor the technology to your needs to reduce plastic production costs.

What are the advantages of using biodegradable plastics?

The products obtained this way are not harmful to nature, and they are often able to meet consumer requirements in the same way as products made of traditional plastic. Moreover, at first glance it is very difficult to recognize whether a given product is made of biodegradable material. Therefore, for example, packaging made of these materials is marked with a special biodegradability certificate. Such a certificate can provide the company with a better perception of the brand by consumers and directly contribute to increasing sales. It has long been known that an ecological approach and ease of disposal are values ​​that customers are increasingly guided by when shopping. Like traditional plastic, biodegradable plastics can be processed using all plastic processing technologies, e.g. thermoforming, plastic extrusion, or injection.

What are the disadvantages of using biodegradable plastics?

Biodegradable plastics have one key drawback for entrepreneurs – they are still more expensive than similar plastics made from petroleum. However, it can be observed that from year to year the price of biodegradable materials decreases and it is possible that soon the price of both types of plastic will be similar.

And if not biodegradable plastics – then what?

Biodegradability is not always desirable in every industry. Therefore, despite many advantages, we cannot always choose biodegradable packaging or other products made of these materials. What other ecological approach to plastics should be adopted to reduce their negative impact on the environment? One option is to recycle traditional plastics. It is worth mentioning regranulates, i.e. materials that have been ground and are ready for reuse. Thanks to this, you can compromise – obtain an ecological and at the same time economical material.


Biodegradable plastics can reduce plastic waste if disposed of according to their properties. The most important thing is that when choosing a material for the production of packaging or plastic parts, you should look at your product holistically and choose a material that is sustainable not only in the context of the environment, but also in terms of application, business needs and consumer requirements.

You don’t know which material will work best for your product? Consult the project with our expert and we will help you reduce production costs and select the optimal solution.

Adam Bernacki

Adam Bernacki

Technical director at Plastipol Poland. Popularizer of knowledge about plastics processing. Industry experience gained through education at Scandinavian polytechnics, work in global corporations in the plastics industry, and by managing technical issues in a Polish company. Specialist in plastics batch and mass production technologies. Author of articles and industry texts for clients in various industry sectors. Training Advisor.