What's the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable?
It is easy to confuse the two terms, and sometimes it seems they are used interchangeably, but the difference is significant.
An item is considered biodegradable if living organisms and/or bacteria are capable of breaking it down. The biodegradation process requires some combination of air, water, and light to support the microbes in breaking down the material. Typically biodegradable materials will eventually decompose if given enough time. However, the time for materials to break down varies greatly. Some biodegradable materials can take years or even multiple centuries to decompose, while others (like compostable ones!) will break down relatively quickly. In addition, some materials will break down into helpful compounds that enrich our soils, while others can potentially leave behind harmful chemicals and toxins. For these reasons, it's important to further categorize which materials will be beneficial when they have decomposed.
Compostable materials are organic compounds that can biodegrade quickly and return to the earth while providing nutrients back into the soil instead of toxic compounds. So while all compostable materials can be considered biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable.
The US Federal Trade Commission has tried to provide more clarity in labeling the products we purchase and use. They explain that if a product is destined for a landfill, a company should not claim that it is biodegradable unless they also can explain how long it takes to degrade and how much it will degrade over time. But keep in mind that landfills really are the last place we would like materials to go because they rot slowly and release harmful greenhouse gases like methane. Composting is an environmentally superior alternative to dumping organic waste in landfills because it reduces methane production. This is why a compostable product is the better option, of course, as long as it gets composted. According to the FTC, if a product or box says "compostable," it indicates the producer has proved that the material may be safely composted in household compost piles. And if you can't compost the material safely at home, the manufacturer should inform you.
It is important to read the labels carefully, however. Often times you might notice products labeled as "compostable" with "at commercial facilities" in tiny print at the bottom. Take-out containers, cups and lids, food packaging, and polybags are frequently labeled this way. These are often made from bioplastics, or plastics derived from plants rather than fossil fuels. Bioplastics have become increasingly popular as consumers seek environmentally friendly alternatives. Unfortunately, many people wrongly assume that because bioplastics are plant-based, they must biodegrade easily too. In actuality, biobased plastics can be engineered to be structurally similar to petroleum-based plastics, allowing them to survive the same amount of time in the environment. The notion that plant-based plastics can simply be discarded anywhere to break down and disappear is false.
Home Composting vs. Industrial Composting
So, what is the difference that you get with industrial composting? Industrial composting systems feature hotter temperatures and different breakdown conditions than a typical household compost bin. When an item can't be composted in the backyard, it might require being sent here. If your city has a residential compost collection program, be sure to check first if compostable plastic is accepted before sending it along. Never place compostable plastics into recycling collection bins. This can contaminate and disrupt the recycling stream if intermixed with petroleum-based plastics that are non-compostable.
Composting Products From Ecological Market
When shopping with Ecological Market, take a look at the "End of Life" tab. It is at the bottom of each product and includes recommendations on what to do once a product requires disposal. Many of the products we carry are either backyard compostable or should be sent to an industrial composting facility to properly be broken down. We do our best to inform you of the most appropriate way to dispose of every item we carry. You should also check with your local composting or waste management service to find out their general guidelines too.