Biodegradable and compostable are words that are often used interchangeably, but do you know the difference?
When walking through the store, you will see biodegradable plastered on the packaging of a multitude of products. But what does biodegradable mean?
The simple definition of biodegradable is anything capable of being broken down, especially into harmless products by the action of living things. This would classify mostly everything as biodegradable.
What separates a product labeled as biodegradable and one that is not, is the speed at which it breaks down.
Biodegradability does not necessarily guarantee low toxicity.
Biodegradation is essentially just the process of nature taking its course and breaking down materials to their component parts.
The truth is that lots of things are biodegradable, even plastic is technically biodegradable even though it can take centuries for it to break down naturally.
According to the EPA, chemicals known to be rapidly biodegradable have also been identified as carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants. However, only products that do not contain ingredients, carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxicants will be eligible to make a biodegradability claim. These chemicals can be both harmful to the environment and to humans.
When a packaging company says that their product is biodegradable, all they really mean is that it will break down when placed in a landfill.
Obviously we don’t want products that last forever sitting in our landfills. The key, however, is to take note of how long it takes for the product to biodegrade.
Some products degrade in months, while others take years. When shopping for green products, the less time for biodegradation the better.
Composting is the process of recycling organic waste so that it can eventually be reused. When people think of the word biodegradable they often get it confused with compostable, and it’s an easy mistake because compostable products are also biodegradable.
Compostable means a product is able to break down into natural elements in a compost environment. This organic process allows products to be broken down with no harm to the environment and humans. These breakdowns are much faster, and usually take around 90 days to complete.
However, compostable products do not always biodegrade naturally in a landfill. They have to be placed in the right kind of conditions, conditions that are often only found in industrial compost facilities. Compostable products will take much longer to break down if in a landfill, especially an “air locked” landfill where there will be no oxygen.
Unfortunately, there are not too many industrial composting facilities in the United States and backyard composting sites and even many industrial composting facilities cannot compost packaging labeled as compostable.
Instead of being made from petrochemicals from fossil fuels, compostable products are made from plants. According to World Centric, compostable plastics are derived from renewable materials like corn, potato, and tapioca starches, cellulose, soy protein, and lactic acid. Using renewable material is not only sustainable, but also cuts hundreds of years off the degradation of a nonrenewable product.
So what’s the difference:
While most compostable products are also biodegradable, biodegradable products are not always compostable.
Biodegradable products break down in a natural setting, typically take longer to degrade, and often leave behind more residues. Compostable products break down in a compost environment, take close to 90 days to degrade, and leave no toxic residue, breaking down into nutrient-rich products.
Many items that are labeled as “biodegradable” are not accepted by composting facilities because they take too long to break down and/or will not decompose entirely, disrupting the composting cycle and some compostable products will not degrade if they are sent to a landfill.
We need better composting and recycling infrastructure that can help us avoid sending products and packaging straight to landfills, however, that is an entirely different story.
Overall, both compostable and biodegradable products are generally better for the environment than your generic products, but it is important to know the difference between them so you dispose of them properly.