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Biodegradable vs Compostable: What is the Difference?

Biodegradable vs Compostable: What is the Difference?

Biodegradable vs compostable products; what’s the difference? If these two terms have been confusing to you, here is a comprehensive guide to help solve the problem once and for all.

With the increased sensitization on sustainable living and efforts to protect our planet, more people want to make a difference. People are working towards reducing their carbon footprint and thus have become more conscious when buying or consuming various products.

However, amid these efforts, these two terms prove confusing every time some people want to do sustainable shopping – biodegradable vs compostable. Do they refer to the same thing?

Well, while these terms have been used interchangeably numerous times, they certainly don’t mean the same thing. This leads us to the core issue of differentiating biodegradable vs compostable materials. What does each term stand for?

We have compiled this extensive guide detailing various biodegradable vs compostable material facts to better understand the two. This will give you an easy time in your efforts to lead an eco-friendly life.

Biodegradable Definition

biodegradable

Biodegradation is the process by which materials disintegrate naturally through the help of biological agents such as bacteria, fungi, etc.

So, what does biodegradable mean?

The term is used to stand for materials that undergo the biodegradation process.

In other words, biodegradable materials will naturally disintegrate over time and get assimilated into the environment. During the process, the original material degrades and breaks down into simple elements, including water, carbon dioxide, and biomass.

While oxygen is not a must-have condition for biodegradation, it acts as a catalyst. It helps to increase the rate at which the process takes place. This means that without oxygen, biodegradable materials will take longer to break down.

One crucial thing to note, though; biodegradable materials will break down at different rates. For instance, the time needed for vegetable scraps to completely biodegrade is different from that of cotton cloth. While both will eventually be assimilated into our natural environment, one will take a longer time than the other.

The variation in the rate at which different materials biodegrade is entirely dependent on the material’s chemical composition and storage conditions.  This is a crucial aspect to understand, as it helps us determine which materials are more environmentally friendly than the others.

Take the example of a plastic bag! It takes at least 500 years for a plastic bag to disintegrate naturally. This means that this material will be choking our environment somewhere for all those years unless there is some intervention.

However, it is not always easy to figure out which objects are biodegradable. While some products are obvious, others are quite hard to determine. That’s why the FTC (federal trade commission) and several other organizations have come up to monitor and ensure that proper labeling of products is done.

Compostable Materials Definition

 

compostable materials

Compostable materials are simply materials that will biodegrade under specific conditions (human-induced). This means that all compostable materials are also biodegradable.

However, unlike biodegradation, the composting process doesn’t occur naturally. Instead, the process requires human intervention to set the right conditions. For example, while certain microorganisms will facilitate the breakdown, humans will have to provide oxygen, water, and the necessary organic matter to optimize the composting process.

Generally, compositing speeds are considerably affected by conditions like light, water, oxygen, and the type of environment.

So, what is the definition of compost? And, what materials are ideal for the process?

When we talk of compost, we refer to a mixture of several ingredients that help improve soil quality. It is simply used to fertilize the soil.

Generally, compost is created through the decomposition of organic materials such as plants or food wastes. Using the organic materials ensures that the compost mixture contains plant nutrients, as well as other useful organisms like worms.

Composting offers an environmental-friendly option of improving the soil’s quality for landscaping, gardening, horticulture, organic farming, and any other type of farming. It provides natural and environmentally harmless fertilizers to crops.

In addition, the natural interaction between plant roots, soil, and microorganisms helps to improve soil structure. This, on the other hand, enhances the soil’s capacity to retain water.

Types of Composting

There are usually two types of composting – residential and commercial composting. Let’s take a look at each.

  • Residential Composting

This type of composting involves the collection of the kitchen remains, and some yard wastes into a heap or bin. You then keep turning the materials periodically to promote degradation.

In this type of composting, some materials are more complex and won’t be ideal for it. This is because the procedure produces insufficient heat to break down some materials.

  • Commercial Composting

This is a more complex and grand type of composting. It involves sorting out organic materials from inorganic ones, cutting and grinding them into smaller pieces, and creating optimal conditions for degradation. The temperature and oxygen levels must be optimal.

Since the conditions here are more optimized, commercial composters are thus able to include more complex materials than residential composters.

In trying to figure out which products are compostable and which ones are not, it’s always wise to check the label. Like with biodegradable products, manufacturers are now required to indicate on the package, by the FTC, whether or not a product is compostable.

This way, you’ll know whether you can compost the waste products in your backyard or if you’ll have to take them to a larger commercial composter.

See Related: Best Compostable Mailers

Biodegradable vs Compostable Plastic

Just like in other materials, all compostable plastic is also biodegradable. However, the opposite doesn’t apply – not all biodegradable plastic is compostable. Why?

Composting requires biodegradable materials that have the ability to improve the soil’s quality. This means that a material or a product might undergo biodegradation, but it’s not ideal for preparing compost.

With various brands and products now going green, I am sure that you’ve come across biodegradable or compostable plastic, either conscious or not. Whether you shop for phone casing, grocery bag, or even a travel mug, the chances are that you come across these products.

Currently, many businesses are also turning to bioplastics as a means of packaging. For instance, some restaurants now use bioplastic takeout containers in an attempt to become more eco-friendly. Others even use bioplastics for utensils like the BAMBOODLERS Disposable Cutlery Set that is 100% eco-friendly.

Biodegradable Plastics

biodegrable plastic

These are plastics that can naturally degrade through the action of microorganisms and re-enter the environment as carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. While common plastics are considered non-biodegradable, due to the time it takes them to degrade fully, biodegradable ones are made from materials that degrade faster.

Generally, biodegradable plastics can be categorized into two main types – Oxo-biodegradable and Hydro-biodegradable.

In these two biodegradable plastic categories, biodegradation occurs in two stages:

  • Chemical process – oxidation followed by hydrolysis
  • Biological process

Both plastic types will emit carbon dioxide during the biodegradation process, although hydro-biodegradable plastics also produce methane.

Differences between Oxo-biodegradable and Hydro-biodegradable

Oxo-biodegradable Plastics

  • Created when fatty acid compounds in a specific transition metal are added to common plastics
  • Have claims for biodegradability but not compostability
  • Its carbon element turns to CO2 over a long period
  • OBP undergoes chemical degradation through hydrolysis and oxidation

Hydro-biodegradable Plastics

  • HBPs are manufactured from organic materials (wheat, corn, sugarcane), petroleum-based materials, or even by blending the two.
  • These plastics meet both the US and European biodegradable and compostable standards.
  • They are quicker to biodegrade than their OXP counterparts.

Examples of biodegradable plastics available in the market include:

  • Starch-based
  • Cellulose-based
  • Bacteria-based
  • Lignin-based
  • Soy-based plastics
  • Natural fibers reinforced plastic

All these and more biodegradable plastics are changing the way we care for our environment. 

But are they the ultimate solution for the plastic menace facing the globe?

Biodegradable vs Compostable Plastics: Pros

  • Unlike common plastic, which is made from petroleum, bioplastics come from plant materials, therefore, organic.
  • The bioplastics’ production process might have a lesser negative effect on the environment, although so many factors come into play. Also, there are several uncertainties of the extent.

Biodegradable vs Compostable Plastics: Cons

  • Breaking down some bio-plastics requires intense heat. This is mostly available in commercial composters, making residential composters ideal just for some bio-plastics. Without the necessary heat, these plastics take pretty long to degrade.
  • They are not the ultimate solution, especially for marine plastics. This is because marine conditions are not the best for bioplastics degradation.
  • Bioplastics are usually recycled separately from the common recyclable plastics. They cannot be recycled together.

Compostable vs Biodegradable Trash bags

Traditional trash bags are manufactured from low-density polyethylene (petroleum products). Generally, these materials take ‘forever,’ (over 500 years) to decompose.

However, the need for a cleaner, safer, and livable environment has seen a new emerging trend in trash bag manufacturing – biodegradable and compostable trash bags.

Biodegradable Trashbags

Generally, biodegradable trash bags are plastic bags integrated with some microorganisms to help in the decomposing process of that plastic. While some trash bags are made from natural organic materials which decompose like wheat, corn, sugarcane, etc., some are still made of petroleum-based materials.

However, unlike common plastics, biodegradable ones contain elements, which help them react and degrade after exposure to certain conditions. For instance, photodegradable plastics need light to decompose, while Oxo-degradable require oxygen.

And, you can buy some of these biodegradable plastics online, like the Plant-Based Kitchen bag by Hippo Sak or the ASTM D6400 Compostable Bags by UNNI.

But are degradable trash bags the best alternative to eco-friendly living? Certainly not!

Biodegradable trash bags are still not the solution due to the following reasons:

  • Most End Up in Landfills where there is no Biodegradation

Generally, no biodegradation takes place in these landfills. One reason for this is that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) directs landfills to lockout, moisture, air, and sunlight. As we saw earlier, these are some crucial elements in the biodegradation process of these plastics.

This means that the plastics will just add to the long list of environmental pollutants that aren’t being assimilated back into the environment.

  • Not Recycled with Common Plastics

The chemical composition of biodegradable trash bags is different from that of common plastic. This means that if it’s melted together with the common plastic, it will contaminate the rest of the load. Separately recycling these plastics only adds to the recycling cost.

  • These Bags are not Environmentally-friendly

Since biodegradable trash bags take a longer time to decompose while in landfills, it brings another problem- methane gas. Over a period of 100 years, methane gas will have contributed to the greenhouse effect, 20 times more than CO2.

See Related: Best Compostable Straws

Compostable Trash Bags

Compostable bags are manufactured from plant-based materials and contain zero polyethylene. This means that they are biodegradable and don’t release toxic elements into the environment during decomposition.

Also, they are durable, easy to use, and offer an excellent alternative to common plastic and plastic-based biodegradable trash bags.

The reasons why these are a good choice for someone who wants to lead an eco-friendly life includes:

  • They are Regulated

The manufacturing and distribution of compostable trash bags have to meet certain set standards. They have to be certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) before entering the market.

To identify the approved compostable trash bags, look for a “BPI-certified” mark on the product. This guarantees you that these trash bags are what they claim to be.

  • They are Truly Compostable

While some “biodegradable bags” are not even biodegradable, compostable ones have to meet this requirement. This means that if you dispose of the trash bags on a pile of compost, they will surely decompose. They don’t require too much heat to degrade.

The composting ability is paramount when it comes to the advantages of compostable trash bags. Composting helps the soil to absorb carbon, which works to reduce greenhouse effects.

  • They Have a Legitimate Disposal Process

Unlike many waste materials, including some biodegradable bags, which just end up in landfills, compostable bags have a standard disposal process. You can take your compostable trash bags, together with other compostable waste, to a composting facility.

To find that composting facility near you, simply visit findacomposter.com, and you are good to go.

Biodegradable vs Compostable Packaging

In our today’s world, the most prevalent mode of packaging is plastic material. But, while plastic is easy to manufacture, it also comes with a myriad of negative environmental consequences. That’s why companies are turning to alternative packaging to help keep our environment safe.

Biodegradable packaging is one option that many businesses have turned to. Biopolymers offer a wide range of options from food packaging, clothes, electronics, groceries, etc.

The only drawback with biodegradable packaging is that not all biodegradable plastic is made from organic materials. Some are simply plastic, altered with some microorganisms that help induce degradation. This means that some biodegradable packing materials will still have some negative effects on the environment.

On the other hand, compostable packaging is made from organic materials like wheat, corn, rice, or sugarcane. They are easier to biodegrade and produce harmless elements to the environment.

However, to make the decomposition faster, a commercial composter is necessary, which can produce enough heat and other optimal conditions for easier composting.

If these packaging materials end up in landfills, they are denied oxygen, moisture, and light, necessary for the decomposing process.

Consequently, this leads to the release of methane, which adds to the greenhouse effect.

See related: 11 Best Products to Help Climate Change to Buy Today

Biodegradable vs Compostable Materials: Environmental Impacts of These Materials

How do these materials affect the environment? Are they what we need to for a safer planet?

Well, biodegradable and compostable materials will have different impacts on the environment as follows:

  • Pollution

plastic pollution

While bioplastics are meant to offer an alternative to the environmental pollution caused by typical plastic, they are still not 100% safe. For instance, some “biodegradable plastic” will not readily decompose. If they are left in landfills or open environments, they will take long periods to decompose.

In the landfills, they produce methane gas, a greenhouse gas, thus adding to environmental pollution.

Compostable materials, on the other hand, are easier to break down than biodegradable ones. However, they will also not biodegrade in every environment. For example, if they find their way to lakes and oceans, the marine environment doesn’t offer the necessary conditions for biodegradation.

This means that they can still pollute the environment.

  • Land use Issues

Since compostable materials are usually organic – made from plant materials, the land issue comes up. We need more land to grow these plants (corn, wheat, rice, soy) to allows us to manufacture enough compostable materials for environmental betterment.

Increased demand for bio-based plastics and other products might increase the pressure on our agricultural land, leading to potential loss of biodiversity and habitats, water shortages, and desertification.

  • Reduced Demand on Fossil Fuels

The more biodegradable and compostable materials are produced, the lower the demand for fossil fuels becomes. This is because most biodegradable products are made from organic materials, which reduces the need for petroleum-based products.

Reduced demand for petroleum products means that there will be less pollution due to excavations and oil spills. Subsequently, a healthier environment will start to re-emerge.

  • Saving Depletable Resources

Biodegradable and compostable products are mostly made from renewable resources. This means that their continued use will lead to less usage of depletable resources like fossil fuels.

Renewable resources are not only environmentally friendly but also ensure that future generations will have a better place to live and resources to use.

Biodegradable vs Compostable Products: Which is better?

If your goal is to lead an environmentally friendly life, compostable products are a better option. Composting your waste translates to less waste, ending up in landfills. Also, the compost is ideal for fertilizing your garden, flowerbed, or lawn without the use of artificial fertilizers. Compostable products are also regulated and are even better labeled to help you easily identify them.

However, even with compostable products, biodegradation is not completely straightforward. There are several conditions necessary for the process to occur, meaning that you must commit to providing them if you need to compost.

For instance, if a product is labeled commercially compostable, ensure that you can access a commercial composter before buying the product.

Is there a Better Option than Using Biodegradable and Compostable Products?

Certainly, Yes! If you want to significantly impact the environment positively, reduced consumption is the ultimate solution.

This means that you not only use environmentally-friendly products but also reduce the amount you consume. This way, you are lowering the demand for the production of these products, which also saves on the environment.

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