The terms “compostable” and “biodegradable” are often used interchangeably even though they don’t mean the same thing. For all of us that are environmentally conscious, it’s important to learn the difference. It is particularly important when we are buying from brands that label their packaging as compostable or biodegradable. Learning about their definitions, their main differences, and how businesses use them to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers can help to make sure your products are truly low waste.
What Does Compostable Mean?
Compostable comes from the root word compost, an organic material that has decomposed into tiny pieces and is often used as a fertilizer for your soil. However, the term compostable also describes all materials that will break down into inorganic compounds, water, carbon dioxide, and biomass during a 3-month process. Composting has a simpler and faster process than biodegradation. To decompose you need to be in control of the moisture, temperature, and airflow. Compostable materials do not leave toxic residues because they are organic.
To sum it up, composting is recycling organic waste without any toxic residues. This has a zero negative impact on our environment and allows us to reuse the materials.
What about compostable packaging?
This is where reading the fine print matters. Compostable packaging is different from composting organic materials in your backyard. Many companies are now trying to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers by making “compostable” packaging or products. These companies call their products “compostable” when their products can compost but only if they’re entered into a composting facility. Unfortunately, unless the product is labeled with “home composting” you would only be able to truly compost it in an industrial composting facility. Not all recycling centers are capacitated to handle these “compostable” products, so you might not be able to recycle these either. Look up online if your local recycling center is capable of composting or not. And if all else fails, always aim to reach for the products labeled as “home compostable”.
What Does Biodegradable Mean?
Let’s start by clarifying that all compostable materials are biodegradable, but the opposite is not true. Biodegradable items can be disintegrated by living things like bacteria or fungi into their natural components and blend back in with the earth. Most organic compost materials can be broken down into your home compost bin, however, biodegradable cannot. The trouble we can run into when speaking about biodegradable products is that almost everything will break down eventually. So just because something is labeled as biodegradable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s automatically good for the environment. Ideal biodegradable materials would break down quickly and leave no harmful toxins behind. Unfortunately not all products marketed as biodegradable truly meet these criteria. So if you’re trying to be more sustainable this is something to consider, and always do more research on the “biodegradable” products you’re purchasing.
What about Biodegradable Packaging?
This is very important because A LOT of things biodegrade, but what truly matters is how long that takes. We’re all aware of the negative impacts of plastic waste, but plastic does biodegrade. So when you see that a packaging company says that their product is biodegradable, it just means that it will break down eventually. The real question we should ask ourselves is: how long does it take for it to biodegrade? The problem with plastic, even though it’s biodegradable, is it can take decades for it to biodegrade. There is also biodegradable plastic or “bioplastic”, but unfortunately, this will not decompose on its own in a landfill, only under the right conditions or in a controlled industrial operation. Even though biodegradable plastic is better than traditional plastic, always try to opt for compostable materials when possible.
We know it can be confusing at first, but it’s important to remember there is a difference. Both compostable and biodegradable will usually break down in a reasonable amount of time. However, the main difference is the process they require. Composting usually takes 90 days, whereas biodegradation can take from 6 months to hundreds of years. Both compostable and biodegradable products are steps in the right direction, but not the final solution towards zero waste. Find your local composting facility and contact them to make sure your biodegradable or compostable waste is not ending up in the wrong landfill, and if you own a home composting system make sure that everything you add to it is meant to be there. The good news is that you are here learning about how to be a better eco-friendly person, which means you’re heading in the right direction. Keep it up!
We hope we have been able to provide some clarity on the main differences between compostable and biodegradable. We are so glad you’re on your journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle, and if you’re interested in learning more about sustainability we have gathered a list of 8 easy ways to be more sustainable every day!