What do we mean when we say, “it’s biodegradable”?
By Alexandria Williams
Almost everyone, whether it’s you, your friends, or a family member, has tossed a banana peel or orange peel on the ground with the adage, “it’s biodegradable”. As a result, food waste is strewn across environments as if people are returning the organic substance to its natural form, but nature and its products are not a one size fits all. Humans often imagine biodegradable as coming from the earth, and therefore returnable, but this ignores the vast variety of environments, organisms, and ecosystems existing within nature. Our natural surroundings are not equatable to our food, and for that reason your banana from North Eastern Jamaica does not belong on the ground in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
So, what does biodegradable even mean? While the Oxford Dictionary defines it as a substance capable of being decomposed, humans commandeer natural litter as a quick way to rid themselves of responsibility for their food waste while embracing the natural elements of organic matter. Contrary to popular belief, organic substances do not decompose after a few days of disposal. Haphazardly discarded pistachio shells will take several years to decompose, banana peels two years, orange peels six months, and apple cores two months (Hemphill 2019). Orange peels even have a natural insecticide preventing insects from eating it.
In September 2019, Glacier National Park published a Facebook post titled Myth Busters Banana Peel and Apple Core Edition warning against the biodegradable nature of foods. The post explains the tossing of food means it can be eaten by wildlife and therefore increase habituation. Consequently, harm may befall wildlife as they are attracted to roadsides and face a higher chance of being hit by cars. Additionally, the seeds of forlorn fruit produce non-native plants which animal’s digestive tracts are unaccustomed to. The environment is not equatable to a compost bin and understanding how composting works might help to understand why biodegradation is a complicated process.
According to the Natural Resource Defense Council in the article Composting 101, “…composting simply speeds up the process by providing an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, and other decomposing organisms…to do their work”. While some may equate biodegradation to composting, they are incomparable as even composting takes up to a few months with ideal conditions. It’s no wonder when food waste is left to rot by lay-people it remains as an eyesore for all to see.
Leaving food to decompose in the natural environment is a quick way to ensure organic material remains whole, especially if the environment is dry and arid. The four key ingredients for compost are nitrogen, carbon, water, and air. Nitrogen comes from green food products like banana peels and coffee grounds which ensure decomposers grow rapidly while carbon comes from brown inedible waste like napkins which act as a food source. While the perfected compost formula is two to three parts browns for one part greens, the pile must also be, “…as wet as a wrung out sponge”, with materials no thicker than a finger, constantly aerating. Therefore, an unmoving, whole banana peel the size of a small water bottle left to biodegrade on an inner city hiking trail fails to fit this formula.
Few people attempt to understand the time and natural processes biodegradable waste undergoes. The Landscapes for People, Food, and Nature asserts the commodification of food is, “the latest stage of the objectification of food, a social construct that deprives food of all its non-economic attributes”. The natural attributes of food remain outside society’s range of vision because within capitalist society, the lifecycle of food begins and ends with the consumer.
The commodity chain, which is the process of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and waste, aids in this alienation. Disconnected from the complexities within nature, society develops a holistic view of nature in which all natural products originate simply from “nature”. As a result, leaving an orange peel on the side of the road is rationalized.
Authors Mies and Shiva phrase it as, “[w]estern rationality, the West’s paradigm of science and concept of freedom are all based on overcoming and transcending this dependence” on nature (p. 18). Industrial production defines itself in contrast to nature as man seeks to dominate the environment and exploit its resources. With that said, taking small steps to bring awareness to the ecological system and humans’ role within it reworks this harmful paradigm. So the next time you eat a banana, wrap it up, the earth isn’t your trash can.