Biodegradable vs Compostable

In this article, we discuss the prime differences between the terms ‘Biodegradable’ and ‘Compostable’. Furthermore, we also highlight the reasons why the difference is important, not just for the sake of the compost pit in your backyard, but for the community as a whole.

What is the difference between Biodegradable and Compostable?

Biodegradable products can refer to any substance that breaks down and degrades in the environment, whereas compostable products exclusively relate to organic elements that decay in the environment. 

Compostable items that decompose in compostable surroundings only produce useful residual products such as fertilisers and other soil health-improving substances. 

Biodegradable plastic, on the other hand, is dependent on the element of manufacture, which implies that some of them may leave micro toxic waste residue.

Biodegradable vs Compostable

It’s natural to be perplexed by the distinction between compostable and biodegradable materials. Not all biodegradable items are compostable, and not all compostable products are compostable. 

The most significant distinctions include their own manufacturing ingredients, how they break down, and the leftover constituents after decomposition.

Organic materials or plants that are able to decay over time are used to create compostable goods. Corn starch, bagasse, PVAL/PVOH, and others are examples. 

Compostable items decompose into humus, the richest and most significant component of all soils. The high microbial activity in humus promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in your soil, which helps plants improve their immune systems. 

As a result, during decomposition, biodegradable items do not release any hazardous substances into the environment. 

Remember that compostable materials require a specialised compostable environment to decompose, which includes warm temperatures, nutrients, moisture, and enough of oxygen.

Biodegradable, on the other hand, is mostly employed in plastics, which degrade into microplastics quicker than conventional plastic under any circumstance (compost, landfill, soil). 

It is possible to obtain biodegradable items created from plant-based resources (such as plants, maize oil, or starch) that are simpler to decompose than petroleum-based plastic. 

Biodegradable materials can take many months to decompose, compared to the composting process, and some recent research has indicated that some of these items disintegrate to leave harmful waste behind.

These harmful wastes are known as microplastics, and even though you can’t see them, they contain dangerous components for our ecosystem.

Biodegradable

We frequently see the term “biodegradable” on things we purchase, such as soap and shampoo. But what exactly does it imply? 

Anything biodegradable will degrade into mainly harmless molecules swiftly and securely. What, however, determines whether or not a chemical is biodegradable? 

Biodegradability is commonly found in plant-based, animal-based, and natural mineral-based products. However, depending on the initial material and how much it has been handled, they will degrade at varying rates. 

Biodegradables, according to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), are any materials that degrade due to the activity of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungus, and algae.

Biodegradable items break down in a fraction of the time it takes non-biodegradable products like plastic to break down. Most individuals believe that biodegradable items are only plants. 

It might be papers, cartons, bags, and other materials that have been designed to gently break down until they can be ingested at a tiny level.

Examples of biodegradable products

The following products are some of the examples of biodegradable products:

  • Biodegradable plastic bags for supermarket shopping: These are biodegradable plastic coloured t-shirt bags. Polyethylene is used to make them (PE).
  • Biodegradable Plastic Packaging: This shopping bag is made entirely of biodegradable plastic. It’s constructed of PBAT, a copolyester.
  • Biodegradable Plastic Trays: Made of recycled polyethylene-PET, they are biodegradable food plastic blister trays.

Problems associated with biodegradable

When people see the phrase “biodegradable” on a piece of plastic, they may assume that it will gradually degrade over time, much like a banana. 

Regrettably, this isn’t the case. Exposure to high temperatures and sunshine is required for this form of plastic to biodegrade.

Biodegradable plastic is meant to disintegrate at temperatures over 50°C, thus it will not biodegrade if it ends up in the ocean. In fact, it won’t biodegrade anywhere except in specialised facilities.

Another concern is that the procedure is dependent on sunshine to function effectively. Because biodegradable plastics are not buoyant, they sink in the ocean and are not exposed to sunlight.

It also implies that they won’t decompose in a landfill. ‘Biodegradable, but only under particularly tight conditions’ could be a suitable label for these items.

Because the circumstances necessary for biodegradation are unlikely to exist, biodegradable plastics in the water will behave similarly to ordinary plastics.

A plastic ring was found securely wedged around the seal’s neck. Whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and fish are among the marine animals that are negatively affected by plastic in the water. 

Many creatures have had plastic detected in their stomachs, and it is estimated that 100,000 marine species die each year as a result of it.

In addition to the hazards of swallowing plastic, marine life is at risk of being entangled in it, impairing their ability to swim, hunt, or fly.

They either become easy prey for predators or lose their capacity to sustain themselves, eventually starving to death.

The technology of biodegradable polymers, on the other hand, is rapidly progressing. It might be a breakthrough in the fight against plastic pollution if scientists can find out a method for plastics to degrade under natural settings, even in the ocean. 

Although it is still sensible to recycle, reuse, and reduce, having plastic that we know would not survive for millennia might help prevent the environmental disaster we are facing.

Compostable

In a compost setting, compostable indicates that a product may decompose into natural constituents. It has no negative impact on the environment because it has been broken down into its natural components. 

In most cases, the breakdown process takes roughly 90 days. 

Compostables are defined by the ASTM as anything that degrades during composting by biological processes to generate CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a pace comparable to other compostable materials while leaving no visible, identifiable, or harmful residue.

Examples of compostable products


The following mentioned products are the prime examples of compostable products:

  • Uncoated napkins, uncoated paper plates, and paper towels are examples of compostable paper products (not used with cleaning chemicals).
  • Compostable Clamshells, Plates, and Bowls are created from sugarcane (“bagasse”), untreated wood, leaves, or other plant pulps and are uncoated paper-like fibre products.
  • PLA (Polylactic Acid, a polymer generated from renewable sources such as maize starch, cane sugar, or tapioca) cups for cold beverages and PLA-lined paper hot cups and bowls are examples of compostable cups and bowls. Sugarcane is also used in several of them.
  • Utensils made of cornstarch or potato starch are compostable.
  • Biopolymers such as starch or polylactic acid are used to make compostable films and bags (PLA).

    Polyvinyl alcohol (also known as PVOH or PVAL) is an odourless, biodegradable, non-toxic, and water-soluble synthetic polymer used in several water-soluble films.

Why is it important to know the difference

While biodegradable things refer to any substance that decomposes in the environment, compostable goods are organic matter that decomposes, with the end result having a variety of applications, including fertilising and increasing soil health. 

Compostable goods, on the other hand, do not leave hazardous residue since they are already organic. Unlike compostable items, some biodegradable materials take years to degrade and can even leave harmful waste behind.

Biodegradable polymers, for example, are frequently labelled as such. 

While they are supposed to degrade more quickly than conventional plastic and be better for the environment, if the correct environmental elements aren’t present, they may take just as long as regular plastics.

While biodegradation is entirely dependent on the items being exposed to the appropriate quantity of moisture and temperature, compostable materials will degrade quickly regardless of external environmental circumstances.

When it comes to recycling, the phrases biodegradable and compostable are the most common, which might lead to misunderstanding. 

Concerns voiced by the compost industry in response to products claiming to be biodegradable or compostable led to the establishment of European Standard EN 13432, which establishes standards for what may and cannot be labelled compostable and biodegradable. 

Similar specifications can also be found in the ASTM D6400-99 standard from the United States.

Many “biodegradable” goods are rejected by composting facilities because they take too long to break down and/or do not disintegrate completely, causing the composting cycle to be disrupted. 

Materials that satisfy either the European or US Standard, on the other hand, will decompose successfully in almost all composting systems.

Conclusion

Biodegradable products can refer to any substance that breaks down and degrades in the environment, whereas compostable products exclusively relate to organic elements that decay in the environment. 

Compostable items that decompose in compostable surroundings only produce useful residual products such as fertilisers and other soil health-improving substances. 

Biodegradable plastic, on the other hand, is dependent on the element of manufacture, which implies that some of them may leave micro toxic waste residue.

FAQs

What to do with compostable and biodegradable packaging at home?

When dealing with biodegradable and/or compostable packing, one should keep the following things in mind:

  • Avoid using packaging in the first place if at all possible. The best alternative is to buy loose or unpackaged items, or to purchase in a bulk market.
  • If you bought something in biodegradable packaging, make sure you compost it as soon as possible. Check to see if the packaging can be composted at home or if it has to be taken to a commercial composter.
  • It’s preferable to throw biodegradable packaging in with your recycling and let the city deal with it. Adding it to your compost pile will provide no value.

    This can sometimes mean it can’t be recycled and will wind up in a landfill. Which is both sad and infuriating. At the very least, it brings attention to the need for reforms at recycling facilities.

    Hopefully, management will have the required discussions with the appropriate individuals. They may soon have no option if faced with growing volumes of biodegradable packaging they can’t digest.

Is Biodegradable plastic an example of Greenwashing?

Yes, Biodegradable plastic in some cases can be an example of Greenwashing. 

Greenwashing is defined as “a sort of spin in which green PR or green marketing is falsely employed to create the notion that an organization’s goods, objectives, or policies are environmentally beneficial,” according to Wikipedia.

In the case of biodegradable plastics, this is exactly what is happening. 

Yes, they are theoretically biodegradable, but the conditions under which plastics decompose are so particular that seeing this as a feasible solution to the plastic pollution problem is impractical.

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