Biodegradable vs Compostable – What Is The Important Difference?
There are constant arguments between biodegradable vs compostable. The terms are often used interchangeably, and most do not understand the difference. Waste is a big problem we are facing, and as a result, more and more people are joining the zero-waste movement.
With the rise of this movement, there have never been more products claiming to be compostable or biodegradable. Most know these are better choices for the planet but fail to understand how they differ. Knowing the differences between the two is so important.
This is because if you dispose of them incorrectly, you could undo all the environmental good associated with the products. Not to worry, though; we are going to dive fully into biodegradable vs compostable, sharing the key differences, so you know how to handle this waste correctly.
The Difference Between Biodegradable vs Compostable
As mentioned previously, the terms are so often confused with one another. Therefore, in order to properly understand the differences, you must comprehend the meaning of both biodegradable and compostable. Below are the definitions of each.
Meaning of Biodegradable
Biodegradable materials are able to break down with or without oxygen. The microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria break compostable items down and transform them into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide.
It’s important to note that biodegradable items must be disposed of correctly and cannot simply be left behind. This can result in harmful residue that pollutes the planet. With this in mind, when something is biodegradable, it does not always mean it is totally planet-friendly and safe.
Meaning of Compostable
Now that you understand the meaning of biodegradable let’s get into compostable. If you’ve asked this question before, you have asked a very good one because it can be a tad confusing. Generally, compostable items can be broken down by microorganisms within the soil.
They usually require oxygen to assist with the breakdown process, and once they have decomposed, they go on to contribute to nutrient-rich organic soil. This is known as compost. Composting allows individuals to divert a lot of their kitchen waste. This is because you can compost natural paper products like toilet paper holders and takeaway food containers.
In addition, you can compost your food waste and waste from your garden. For example, if you recently cut the hedges or your grass, the trimmings can be put into your compost bin. The items that are compostable depend greatly on the kind of composting system you are using. Eco-friendly nappies and plastic alternatives, animal waste, and silicone cannot always be composted at home.
This is where things get a bit more difficult, and it’s because there are two different kinds of composting. They are commercial composting and residential composting. Industrial or commercial composting can handle a lot more organic waste than residential composting. The equipment like chippers and grinders means the process is sped up, and more items can be composted.
For example, animal manure and animal and dairy products. Some commercial operations will also accept compostable plastic alternatives and eco-friendly nappies. Both of these items are not recommended for residential composting. This is due to the faecal matter in the nappies and whether it is safe to apply this to plants that are made to be eaten.
Not only that, but they can take a great length of time to actually degrade. Eco-friendly plastic alternatives, like bioplastics, can also take as much as a decade to degrade in residential composting. Usually, these products will say on the packaging to compost in industrial facilities for this very reason. These items have to be sent to these facilities to be broken down under certain conditions.
Some of these conditions include a high temperature which cannot be attained in residential composting systems. With that in mind, some commercial operations still put their foot down on eco-friendly plastic alternatives or nappies. For this reason, you need to check the list of items they can take in advance.
Not doing this and sending the items will only result in contaminating the waste stream, and your compost facility will have more work to do. Residential composting, by contrast, refers to the collection of organic matter like garden waste and food scraps to create homemade compost to enrich your plants and aid their growth.
As mentioned previously, it is a fantastic way to keep waste away from landfill and use it well. Sadly, some organic matter like fish, dairy, and meat is not recommended for residential composting. This is due to the odour they create. These smells could also attract pests. It is a shame since these products are actually compostable.
It is also important to note that certain vegetable scraps like orange peels, garlic, and onions are also not recommended in residential composting. This is because they can offset the PH balance of your compost heap. The result of this could be killing the worms, and they play a vital role in the decomposition process.
To determine whether an item is compostable, it is best to look for certifications that can prove its compostability. There have been greenwashing cases where products have claimed to be compostable only to be found to contain harmful chemicals like PFAS. This chemical has been linked to high cholesterol reproductive disorders, increased risk of cancer, weakening of the immune system, and hormonal disruption.
In the EU, the compostability standard is set by the EN 13432. This certification determines how fast and to what extent products must degrade under the industrial composting conditions.
Under the EU standard, compostable materials have to disintegrate within 12 weeks of disposal. The ATSM D6400 is the standard in the US, and it details the solid materials that can be labelled as compostable in municipal or commercial facilities.
The CAN/BNQ-0017-088 is Canada’s standard for compostable plastics, and it shares requirements and procedures for both labelling of plastics and identification. With all this in mind, it is also important to note that you cannot put compostable products into the recycling bin even if you cannot compost them. This is because you risk contaminating the waste stream.
The advent of biodegradable and compostable goods is a great sign we are taking climate change seriously. However, all of this effort goes to the wayside if we do not dispose of these items correctly. If an item is exposed to heat and sunlight, it will decompose. However, while this may sound great, they do not disappear. Rather, they break down into smaller pieces that are almost microscopic.
Sadly, this results in a lot of pollution and contamination problems. For instance, if a piece of technology breaks down, it can contain harmful chemicals that threaten the air, soil, and water.
With this in mind, understanding the differences between biodegradable vs compostable is really important. We need to be considerate of the waste we are creating and how this affects the planet and our precious ecosystems. The main difference between these two terms is the decomposition process.
One occurs with sunlight and heat, while the other requires assistance from microorganisms. However, it is still vital to note that a lot of goods can degrade, but that does not mean they are biodegradable. Some can degrade but are not compostable also.
This is why it is important to find out whether items are biodegradable, compostable or recyclable so you know exactly how to dispose of them in the least harmful way possible.
Why the Difference Between Biodegradable vs Compostable Is Important
It is absolutely essential to understand the difference between biodegradable vs compostable. The term biodegradable concerns items that break down and decompose in the environment. Compostable items, by contrast, are specifically organic matter that too decomposes, but the end product has great benefits for soil health.
Another thing to note with respect to compostable goods is they do not leave behind any toxic residue because they are entirely organic. Some biodegradable products can take many years to break down, and unfortunately, there is still the risk of harmful chemicals being left behind.
Plant-based plastics are a great example of this. If the right conditions for them to decompose are not met, they could take the same length of time as normal plastic. As we know, some plastic items can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to decompose. In fact, many believe that most of the plastic ever created is still on the planet.
With all of this in mind, tackling waste can be a daunting task. However, as the consumer, you can take the lead here and have a positive impact. If you understand these terms and how they differ, you can make stronger efforts to dispose of your waste correctly. Handling your waste correctly reduces the likelihood of contamination and pollution issues. Therefore, your waste will have less of an impact on the Earth!
Choosing Between Biodegradable vs Compostable Products
Now that you understand the differences between biodegradable vs compostable, you are likely wondering which is better. There are lots of benefits to both kinds of goods.
However, if we are to choose a winner that is more environmentally sound, compostable items take the cake. They are organic and break down in a certain time frame.
Additionally, compostable products undergo very strict testing. Moreover, they do not release any harmful chemicals or residue when they break down.
The best part about compostable items is they allow you to create healthy compost so you can enrich your soil.
A final thing to remember is that you have more control over where compostable items end up, especially if you are using them for your soil. Biodegradable items have to be sent away, and you have no transparency about where they will end up.
Overall, composting is great for the planet because it helps to curb landfill waste and restores nutrients to the soil.
Another piece of this puzzle is verifying whether a product is biodegradable. In order to figure this out, you need to do some research and check for the relevant certifications.
By contrast, to determine whether goods are compostable, less research is required, and you can often handle the matter yourself. Disposing of biodegradable items incorrectly can have serious implications.
Both goods are not the answer to our dependence on disposable items. Ultimately, we need to work to reduce our waste where we can. For instance, purchasing loose fruit and vegetables and buying a reusable water bottle and coffee cup. However, if you must select an item with packaging, it is important to consider the planet.
Our advice would be to go with compostable items where you can. If they are not available, be sure to carry out research to ensure the biodegradable goods you are considering are genuinely biodegradable.
Q1. Is biodegradable better than compostable?
Biodegradable goods are not necessarily better for the planet than compostable items. This is because biodegradable goods can still be created using chemical plastics. By contrast, compostable items are generally created from plants and are organic.
Q2. Is 100% biodegradable the same as compostable?
All compostable items are biodegradable, but unfortunately, this does not mean all biodegradable items are compostable. The two have a number of key differences. Namely, compostable goods leave behind a single organic material known as humus. By contrast, biodegradable items break down into a number of natural elements. Some of these elements can include the chemicals used to create them.
Q3. Does biodegradable mean eco-friendly?
If something can biodegrade naturally, it does not always mean it is a better choice for the planet. Biodegradable goods can still be sent to landfills, where they release carbon dioxide and methane.
Q4. What are two types of biodegradable?
There are two main kinds of biodegradable materials. These include hydro-biodegradable and oxo-biodegradable.
The Bottom Line
The terms biodegradable vs compostable are used so interchangeably, but they have crucial differences. Knowing the differences will help you act more sustainably and reduce the risk of pollution and waste contamination.
The main difference between them is that compostable goods require microorganisms to break down. However, they undergo strict testing, are organic, and will decompose in a specific timeframe.
There is far more uncertainty with biodegradable items, which is why compostable goods are a better choice for the environment.