There are three types of airsoft BBs available: biodegradable, compostable, and non-biodegradable. Pellets made from metals, synthetic polymers, or nonrenewable plastics do not biodegrade. On the other hand, BBs made from plant-based resins and other organic materials will degrade over time.
BBs made of polylactides or ones that are PLA-based can take up to 2 years to biodegrade. Additionally, the biodegradation of these BBs may not be absolute in a natural environment because it is compostable material. Airsoft BBs made from ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene ) or other synthetic plastics do not biodegrade.
Airsoft BBs marketed or labeled as biodegradable may contain some materials that are not organic, which means they are not 100% biodegradable but are compostable instead. Compostable materials require special handling to ensure complete biodegradation. Many brands of airsoft pellets are marketed as biodegradable, though they are technically compostable. Wondering what this means for your BBs? Keep reading to learn more!
Different Types of Airsoft BBs Have Different Biodegradability
Airsoft BBs made from non-biodegradable plastics take hundreds of years to disintegrate. Metal pellets take decades for substantial disintegration. PLA airsoft BBs can biodegrade over months up to years and much earlier if in a composted form.
A material biodegrades in a natural setting only when exposed to air, soil, water or moisture, sunlight, and microorganisms, leading to partial or complete decomposition. Organic matter, such as food, decomposes because microorganisms feed on it for energy. Inorganic matter, like metal, does not decompose because it is not an energy source for microorganisms.
This means that metal pellets are non-biodegradable. However, as these pellets are not allowed in games, most airsoft BBs are made from different types of plastic. The chemical composition of the plastics used and the presence of other materials in the manufactured pellets determine whether a pellet is biodegradable and how long it will take to biodegrade.
Bio-plastics, such as polylactides (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA/PHB), have a unique decomposition process. PLA needs industrial composting to biodegrade quickly and completely. The material breaks down faster under pressure, for example, when it is thrown into a landfill. PHA, on the other hand, decomposes naturally, even in the ocean. Both PHA or PHB can biodegrade in as little as two months.
Materials Used in Biodegradable Airsoft BBs
Airsoft BBs are made from various raw materials. Manufacturers have different formulas that determine the actual material composition. Besides, companies use different types of adhesives, colorings, shells or coatings, and other materials to make the final product.
The two most common plastics used to make airsoft BBs are PLA and ABS. PLA or polylactide is a renewable thermoplastic, because it is synthesized from organic materials. ABS or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is also a thermoplastic, but it is nonrenewable. ABS is not made from any organic raw material.
Most airsoft BBs marketed and labeled as biodegradable are made from PLA. While PLA pellets are biodegradable, the speed of the decomposition and how much of it will decompose depends on several factors. These include:
- Type and composition of the soil
- Exposure to pressure and moisture, temperature
- Interaction with other environmental agents, including microorganisms
PLA airsoft pellets decompose quickly in industrial composting facilities and landfills. The additional pressure in these artificial environments breaks down the plastic faster. ABS-based airsoft BBs, however, are non-biodegradable.
Biodegradable vs. Compostable Plastics in Airsoft BBs
Many types of plastics are non-biodegradable, such as polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). The eco-friendly alternatives to these plastics are called bioplastics or biodegradable plastics.
Most biodegradable bioplastics are made from starch, cellulose, microbes, or lactic acid through fermentation. The source materials are corn, potato, wheat, tapioca, maize, wood pulp, vegetable oil, and sugar beet. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA or PHB) are synthesized from starch. Polylactide (PLA) is made from lactic acid.
The European Environment Agency segregates different types of plastics as biodegradable, industrially compostable, home compostable, bio-based, non-biodegradable, and oxo-degradable. Biodegradable plastics like PHA or PHB decompose in water, soil, or compost. Industrially compostable plastics like PLA require special conditions, such as a recycling facility or an anaerobic digestion plant.
Biodegradable plastics do not require any human intervention for natural decomposition. Compostable plastics require intervention and special facilities. A biodegradable plastic may be compostable, but not vice versa. Thus, even if your airsoft BBs are made of bioplastics, they may not be truly biodegradable and may instead be compostable.
Are PLA Airsoft BBs Eco-Friendly?
PLA airsoft BBs are the most eco-friendly option available right now. These pellets can be wholly biodegraded in landfills, recycling units, anaerobic plants, and industrial composting facilities. Additionally, PLA airsoft pellets biodegrade substantially in natural settings.
The disintegration process is faster and complete upon greater exposure to soil, grass, moisture, pressure, and environmental interaction, such as biological activity.
Best-selling products like the Black Ops Biodegradable Airsoft BBs on Amazon.com are clearly labeled as biodegradable, and they’re great for indoor or outdoor play. Since these pellets contain PLA, the accurate labeling is technically compostable, not biodegradable. However, manufacturers and sellers are not necessarily misleading buyers.
Many airsoft parks and fields throughout the United States are swept to collect and bag all the strewn pellets. If these used BBs are then moved to industrial composting facilities, the PLA pellets can be completely biodegraded.
However, large open spaces are hard to sweep thoroughly, especially if a game is played in an unregulated setting. In such circumstances, PLA pellets will decompose to varying extents over time, depending on environmental factors.
One study found that PLA pellets labeled as biodegradable shrank naturally by around 83% in 545 days. Two of these biodegradable airsoft BBs disintegrated 100% during the same time. In contrast, the non-biodegradable pellets used in the same project underwent very little to no change. This means that even if a PLA pellet isn’t technically biodegradable, it does decompose and is an eco-friendly option.
PLA airsoft BBs are not perfect or ideal, but they are exponentially better for the environment than non-biodegradable options made from ABS or other plastics.
PHA or PHB are the best alternatives. However, you should keep in mind that there are some inherent limitations of producing polyhydroxyalkanoates at scale. Many studies and experiments are trying to improve green plastics, like PLA and PHA/PHB, and there may soon come a time soon when all airsoft BBs will be 100% biodegradable.