Unveiling the Mystery: Compostable vs Biodegradable Products

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Eco-friendly labels like “compostable” and “biodegradable” are growing on more and more products lately.

It’s awesome that companies are making an effort to be greener. But let’s get real – half the time, we just don’t know what those labels mean!

It sounds pretty similar when we see compostable or biodegradable on a product.

They both make us think that the item will break down and return to the earth, right?

If only it were so simple. The two terms mean different things regarding proper disposal and recycling.

But fear not! In this post, I will veil the mystery surrounding compostable vs. biodegradable products. Let’s dive in and clear up the confusion once and for all.

What Exactly Does ‘Compostable’ Mean?

“Compostable” is becoming popular in eco-friendly products, from food packaging to bags and containers. But what exactly makes something compostable?

Simply put, a compostable product can be broken down into natural materials that enrich the soil. 

More specifically, compostable items are designed to decompose through industrial composting processes under certain conditions.

For packaging, plates, or other products to meet compostable standards and carry an official certification logo, they must:

  • Be made from organic materials like plant starches and fibers that can fully biodegrade.
  • Fragment within 3 months and break down into natural components within 6 months in commercial composting facilities.
  • Leave no toxic or environmentally harmful residue after decomposing.
  • Support high-quality compost that nourishes plant growth.

It’s important to note that compostable does not mean an item will rapidly decompose in landfills or home compost piles. 

Certified compostable products require industrial composting environments with higher temperatures and more active aerobic bacteria to break down.

However, you can technically compost certified compostable products in home compost bins, too. 

Nonetheless, this isn’t the preferred approach, particularly for products crafted from compostable plastics. 

Backyard compost piles lack the efficient temperature regulation, aeration, and microbes to break down these materials fully.

So next time you see the compostable symbol, understand that while the product is eco-friendly at its end-of-life, it still needs to be properly sent to a commercial composting facility to process it. 

This prevents contamination and supports the product’s biodegradation into natural components for enriching soil.

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What Exactly Does ‘Biodegradable’ Mean?

The term “biodegradable” was used on plastic bagsdisposable utensilspackaging materials, and clothing items

Biodegradable products can decompose into natural materials and biomass over time. Particularly, for an item to qualify as biodegradable, it must:

  • It is made from materials like plant starches, wood fibers, or polymers that microbes and biological processes can break down.
  • Have the ability, when discarded, to fully decompose into CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass. 
  • Break down relatively quickly when exposed to typical landfill environments. Many specify a threshold like decomposition within 5 years.

However, biodegradability varies greatly depending on the product components and disposal conditions. 

Some items may take decades to fully decompose when buried deep in landfills lacking light, air circulation, and moisture. 

So next time you come across a biodegradable product, understand it’s designed to slowly decompose naturally over time versus traditional plastics. 

But the rate and thoroughness depend on the environment it ends up in.

Compostable vs Biodegradable Products

It’s vital to note that biodegradable does not equal compostable. 

Biodegradable simply means capable of slowly rotting down. Compostable means able to rapidly decompose into usable organic matter for enriching soil. 

Certified compostable products require commercial composting facilities to break down properly.

While biodegradable items may break down over time in various environments. To simplify the difference between that product, you can refer to the table below:

Which is Better for the Planet?

Determining which is better for the planet, compostable or biodegradable products, depends on various factors and contexts. Here’s an overview:

1. Compostable Products:

a) Benefits:

Compostable products break down into nutrient-rich compost, enriching soil and supporting plant growth.

When composted properly, they reduce waste sent to landfills and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

b) Considerations:

Composting facilities are required for compostable products to break down efficiently. They may only degrade well in home compost bins or landfills with the necessary conditions.

2. Biodegradable Products:

a) Benefits:

Biodegradable products break down naturally over time, reducing plastic pollution and waste accumulation. They can degrade in various environments, including landfills, oceans, and soil.

b) Considerations:

Biodegradation rates and end products may vary depending on environmental conditions. Some biodegradable materials may leave behind harmful residues or take longer to degrade compared to compostable alternatives.

Ultimately, compostable and biodegradable products offer advantages for reducing environmental impact and promoting sustainability. 

Their choice depends on disposal infrastructure, end-of-life management, and specific ecological goals. 

It’s essential to consider the entire product lifecycle and its environmental implications when making decisions about sustainability.

The Certifications and Standards

When you’re buying stuff labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable,” check that it has some official certification logo or standard. 

That way, you can feel good that the company isn’t just making empty promises about being eco-friendly. 

I’d recommend peeking at the labels or packaging to see if there’s a certification mark from groups like BPI or EN. 

Or maybe the fine print mentions meeting a standard like ASTM D6400 for compostability. 

Here are the certifications and standards for compostable and biodegradable products:

a) Certifications for Compostable Products:

Various organizations provide certifications for compostable products, such as the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification in the United States or the European Standard EN 13432 in Europe. 

These certifications ensure that products meet specific criteria for compostability, including biodegradability, disintegration, and absence of harmful substances. 

For example, products certified by the BPI undergo testing to verify their ability to break down into compost within a certain timeframe and under controlled conditions.

Consumers can look for these certifications on product labels to identify compostable items.

b) Standards for Biodegradable Products:

Standards and guidelines, such as ASTM D6400, govern biodegradable products and define criteria for biodegradability. 

These standards specify testing methods and requirements for biodegradable materials to break down into natural elements in a reasonable timeframe. 

For instance, ASTM D6400 outlines criteria for the biodegradability of plastics, including disintegration and mineralization. 

Products that meet these standards can be labeled as biodegradable.

You can also search for the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification logo to determine if the product is biodegradable.

Consumers need to understand the standards relevant to biodegradable products in their region and look for products that comply with these guidelines.

Key Takeaways

  • Consumers can check for the BPI logo on products that claim to be compostable or biodegradable.
  • Standards such as ASTM D6400 govern biodegradable products and define criteria for biodegradability.
  • These certifications ensure products meet specific criteria for compostability, including biodegradability and absence of harmful substances.

How to Properly Throw Away Compostable and Biodegradable Items

Before disposing of those items, learning the correct way to eliminate them is important.

a) Compostable Products:

  1. Look for the BPI or EN certification logo to confirm compostability. 
  2. Do NOT place them in regular trash bins to send to landfills.
  3. Place items in designated composting bins if available. 
  4. Find a local industrial/commercial composting facility in your city or county.
  5. Some towns offer curbside compost pickup for food scraps + certified compostables.
  6. If none is available, advocate for public composting in your municipality. 

b) Biodegradable Plastics:

  1. Look for Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification logo.
  2. Can technically go in regular trash bins to decompose slowly over time.
  3. For quicker decomposition, see if the local facility accepts biodegradable plastics. 
  4. Do NOT try to compost at home or via commercial composting picks up.
  5. If claiming marine biodegradability, one must prove certification for water environments. 

c) With BOTH types:

  1. Cut back consumption/purchase whenever possible.
  2. Properly disposing of certified items helps reduce waste and environmental harm.
  3. But reducing overall usage of disposable items is the most sustainable option.
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Benefits and Drawback of Biodegradable and Compostable Products

Here, I outline the advantages and disadvantages of biodegradable and compostable items, providing insight into their environmental impact.

1. Environmental Benefits:

  • Less Waste: Compostable and biodegradable products can reduce the amount of trash sent to landfills.
  • Renewable Resources: These products are often made from plants, which helps conserve fossil fuels.
  • Better Soil: Composting creates nutrient-rich soil, which is good for plants and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Less Pollution: Proper composting lowers greenhouse gas emissions compared to throwing organic waste in the trash.
  • Recycling: Compostable items can be turned back into compost, closing the loop on waste.

2. Environmental Drawbacks:

  • Conditions Needed: Compostable and biodegradable products might not break down well without specific conditions like heat and moisture.
  • Mixing Issues: If not disposed of properly, these items can contaminate compost piles or recycling streams.
  • Misleading Labels: Some products labeled as “compostable” or “biodegradable” may not actually break down as claimed.
  • Resource Use: Making these products can use a lot of water, energy, and land.
  • Limited Facilities: Not all areas have composting facilities, so these items might end up in landfills anyway.

Final Thought

Confusion about environmental labels ends here! Like many of us, are you mystified by the glut of eco-friendly claims plastered across packaging and products?

Do phrases like “compostable,” “biodegradable,” and “recyclable” make bold promises but leave you scratching your head about what they mean?

Well, now you become more knowledgeable after learning more about this term.

I am arming you with straight facts on precisely what those labels indicate when decomposing products properly.

Consider this your crash course on cutting through the greenwashing to make informed, earth-friendly choices!

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FAQ

Is compostable better than biodegradable?

Compostable products are designed to break down into nutrient-rich compost, making them environmentally beneficial. However, whether compostable is better than biodegradable depends on factors such as end-of-life management and disposal methods.

Is 100% biodegradable the same as compostable?

No, 100% biodegradable and compostable are not the same. While both terms imply the ability to break down naturally, compostable products specifically break down into compost, while biodegradable items may degrade in various environments.

Do compostable items break down in landfills?

Compostable items may not break down efficiently in landfills due to the lack of oxygen and microbial activity. They are better suited for composting facilities where conditions support rapid decomposition.

What is the difference between compostable bags and biodegradable bags?

Compostable bags are designed to break down into compost under specific conditions, typically in composting facilities. Biodegradable bags may degrade over time in various environments but may not necessarily turn into compost.

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AUTHOR

Hanif Roslen is an eco-conscious enthusiast on a mission to help make the world a better, cleaner place. Through day-to-day experience cleaning his own home with those non-toxic cleaners, he has developed innovative and effective green solutions that reduce waste and promote sustainability.

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