Biodegradable boxes and containers are usually composed of organic material such as paper and cardboard and bio-based or starch-based plastics derived from corn, soy, sugarcane or potatoes. Some inorganic materials have also been deemed biodegradable; thermal-based plastic film, for instance, breaks down when exposed to high temperatures.
Biodegradation is the process by which micro-organisms convert more than 90 percent of a material into water and carbon dioxide in a six-month period. The FTC, or Federal Trade Commission, states that a material is biodegradable if it breaks down naturally within "a reasonable short period of time," which is understood to be about one year after disposal.
Non-biodegradable materials such as Styrofoam, glass and many petroleum-based plastics have never been observed to break down under any natural conditions. However, modern landfill conditions often render the distinction between biodegradable and non-biodegradable moot. Due to the lack of circulating air, moisture or light, even newspaper and food waste may not degrade for months and years on end, if ever. Newspapers disposed of 40 years ago were found to be perfectly legible.
Nevertheless, manufacturing companies responded to concerns about waste and pollution and their effect on the environment by developing biodegradable materials. Styrofoam boxes, which had been the norm for transporting restaurant take-out, fell out of favor or were even banned to be replaced by cardboard boxes or other biodegradable materials.