15 Advantages and Disadvantages of Biodegradation

Biodegradation has various positive and negative effects on the environment, economy, and society. This article discusses the advantages and disadvantages of biodegradation, from the perspective of sustainable development (environmental, economic, social), according to the following outline;

Advantages of Biodegradation

-Environmental Advantages of Biodegradation

-Economic Advantages of Biodegradation

-Social Advantages of Biodegradation

Disadvantages of Biodegradation

-Environmental Disadvantages of Biodegradation

-Economic Disadvantages of Biodegradation

-Social Disadvantages of Biodegradation





Advantages of Biodegradation

-Environmental Advantages of Biodegradation

1). Harmless By-Products

The breakdown of most non-biodegradable (inorganic or synthetic) materials releases elements into the environment, that are potentially harmful.

Such potentially harmful by-products may include heavy metals like iron, zinc, copper, lead and manganese. These elements are highly toxic and can poison plants and animals [9].

The by-products of biodegradation are generally non-toxic. These materials include carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and water. They can be integrated into the environment without having negative effects on the ecosystem.

Similarly, when biodegradable materials are used in manufacturing, less greenhouse gas emissions occur, compared to the emissions which are produced when synthetic materials are used in manufacturing.

This is exemplified by bioplastics and synthetic plastics.


2). Nutrient Recycling

Biodegradation is a key process in the natural recycling of nutrients on Earth.

This is because biodegradation plays a role in facilitating many of the nutrient cycles that help to sustain the ecosystem. Such cycles include the nitrogen, carbon, sulfur and hydrogen cycles.

Through biodegradation, many of the important, inorganic elements stored in biomass are released back to the environment. These elements are needed for the survival of the entire ecosystem, which thrives when resources are continuously recycled, as illustrated by the energy pyramid.

In a natural ecosystem, decomposers are responsible for facilitating biodegradation by breaking down organic matter to release inorganic elements into soil, the atmosphere and water bodies.  


3). Soil Enrichment

Biodegradation produces inorganic elements and compounds that serve as nutrients to the soil.

Also, in the process of biodegradation, the size of microbial populations may increase. These microorganisms carry out various activities that can improve soil fertility.

In the process of feeding, respiration, and reproduction, microorganisms improve soil structure, while aerating the soil [14].

They also introduce minerals and essential elements that are needed by plants for growth [8].


4). Environmental Remediation

In some cases of environmental pollution, biodegradation is used as a mechanism for treatment and remediation.

The use of microorganisms and biodegradation for environmental remediation is referred to as bioremediation [13].

Instances where bioremediation is applied include heavy metal pollution [15] and hydrocarbon pollution [12].

Microbes which are used for bioremediation include yeast, fungi, algae and bacteria [3].

biodegradation remediation environment bioremediation
Biodegradation as a Mechanism for Environmental Remediation (Credit: Hoodlind 2017 .CC BY-SA 4.0.)


-Economic Advantages

5). Bioenergy Production

All biomass contains chemical energy, stored in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP).

When biomass is broken down through the process of biodegradation, this stored chemical energy is released back to the ecosystem.

Biodegradation can be used as a mechanism for deriving renewable energy from biomass, in the form of bioenergy.

An example of the use of biodegradation to produce energy is the application of anaerobic digestion.

Anaerobic digestion is simply biodegradation in the absence of oxygen, under controlled conditions. The end products of this biodegradation process include biofuels like ethanol, biogas (methane) and biodiesel [2].

While biofuel is not yet a cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels, its development can reduce the demand for fossil fuels, and hence, the cost of energy production.


6). Waste Management

Biodegradation can reduce the cost of waste management.

This is because biodegradable materials (like food waste and bioplastics) can breakdown entirely, reducing the total mass of municipal waste in landfills and other sites of disposal.

When the amount of municipal waste in landfills is large, higher costs are incurred for waste management. This is because larger land area and equipment will be required to accommodate and treat or recycle the waste.

Also, biodegradable materials are often separated from non-biodegradable waste before disposal. These biodegradable materials could be used for compost or may be used to produce biofuel.

What this implies is that biodegradation can reduce the cost of waste management, by reducing the mass of municipal waste.


7). Agriculture and Food Production

Biodegradation supports agriculture by producing inorganic minerals that enrich the soil.

The agricultural sector is an important component of the global economy. Through biodegradation, organic fertilizer can be used to enrich soil, thereby increasing agricultural productivity [7].

Organic fertilizer is also referred to as manure, and is produced through a process called composting, whereby the organic matter is allowed to undergo biodegradation under largely anaerobic conditions.

compost biodegradation microbe microorganism decomposition
Biodegradation supports Agriculture through Composting and Manure Application (Credit: Rasbak 2005 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)


Biodegradation is also used in food production, especially in the production of beverages like yoghurt, wine, and beer. These food products are made by subjecting raw materials to anaerobic biodegradation (fermentation) under controlled conditions.


8). The Circular Economy

A circular economy is one which encourages the effective recycling of raw materials (natural resources) rather than their disposal [6]. It is one of the major factors involved in the sustainable development agenda.

Biodegradation is a critical requirement for the accomplishment of a circular economy.

It ensures that natural resources taken from the environment (by living organisms) are effectively returned to the environment, from which they may again be taken up and re-used.

Benefits of a circular economy include;

  1. Lower Production Cost
  2. Increased Competitiveness and Innovation
  3. Job Creation
  4. Economic Growth
  5. Availability of Raw Materials


-Social Advantages of Biodegradation

9). Healthcare and Biotechnology

Biodegradation is used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals for the healthcare industry.

This is because some toxins and enzymes produced by microorganisms are important ingredients in several drugs.

The mode of biodegradation used to manufacture these drugs is usually fermentation, which is basically equivalent to anaerobic, methanogenic biodegradation (See the Stages and Mechanisms of the Biodegradation Process here).

Antibiotic (antibacterial, antiviral) drugs represent a prominent example of pharmaceutical products whose manufacture involves biodegradation (fermentation) [4].

Other healthcare products in this category include insulin, enzymes, DNA, and therapeutic recombinant proteins [10].


10). Food Security

Biodegradation contributes to the improvement of food security, through manure application and fermentation-based food processing.

Poor levels of agricultural production is one of the causes of food insecurity. Through anaerobic biodegradation, manure is produced, which can be applied to soil to boost its fertility and improve crop yield.

Biodegradation mechanisms (such as fermentation) are also used in the production of beverages, in the food-production sector.



Disadvantages of Biodegradation

-Environmental Disadvantages of Biodegradation

1). Contamination and Pollution

Biodegradation poses a risk of contamination to the environment. This is because during biodegradation, some unwanted materials may be released into the soil, air, and/or water.

Examples of such contaminants include nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and methane. When these materials are released into the environment from decomposing biomass, contamination or pollution may occur.

In landfills and other waste-disposal sites, biodegradation causes pollution when organic waste is not segregated from inorganic waste.

Some biodegradable materials are known to be harmful to the environment, when they breakdown through biodegradation.

Examples of such materials include phthalates, which can be broken down under aerobic and anaerobic conditions, by microorganisms like fungi and bacteria [11]. The products of biodegradation, of phthalates; are highly toxic, and said to be carcinogenic.


2). Incomplete Breakdown

Some biodegradable materials, like bioplastics, may not decompose completely [16].

Incomplete (or partial) biodegradation often occurs when a biodegradable material includes some components which are not biodegradable.

When incomplete biodegradation occurs, it usually leaves potentially harmful residues behind. These residues can pollute the environment, requiring complex remediation measures for their removal.


3). Greenhouse Emissions

The by-products of biodegradation include greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

All organic matter is dominantly composed of carbon, which is stored in cells. When biodegradation occurs, this carbon is released onto the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2).

An example of greenhouse gas emission as a result of biodegradation can be seen in the decay of forest vegetation.

Plants consume carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis, all through their lives [5], and this is released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when the plants die and decompose.

Other examples include the production of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) from slurry, wastewater and solid organic waste, during the process of anaerobic digestion.


-Economic Disadvantages of Biodegradation

4). Continuous Production

In some scenarios, the use of bio-based materials in the manufacturing industry may pose problems of continuous production.

This is because bio-based products ultimately return to the environment, and cannot be recycled by simple rehabilitation, as is the case for synthetic products.

While this ensures that raw materials are effectively recycled in the environment, it also ensures that the manufacturing process is repeated for each new product.

This may incur significant production costs compared to the cost of recycling synthetic materials.


-Social Disadvantages of Biodegradation

5). Health Problems

Biodegradation supports the growth and survival of some disease-carrying organisms which are capable of affecting human health in a negative manner.

When biodegradable materials are exposed to the environment, they may serve as breeding grounds for disease vectors like rodents and mosquitoes [1]. These organisms are harmful to the society, since they are capable of spreading diseases.



Advantages of biodegradation are;

1. Harmless By-Products

2. Nutrient Recycling

3. Soil Enrichment

4. Environmental Remediationare

5. Bioenergy Production

6. Waste Management

7. Agriculture and Food Production

8. The Circular Economy

9. Healthcare and Biotechnology

10. Food Security


Disadvantages of biodegradation are;

1. Contamination and Pollution

2. Incomplete Breakdown

3. Greenhouse Emissions

4. Continuous Production

5. Health Problems



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