Is biodegradable the same as compostable? (7 applications of composting)

In this article, the difference between composting and biodegradability will be analysed. Other covered topics would be: 

  • What is composting?
  • What are the types of composting?
  • What are the applications of composting?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • What is the importance of biodegradability?
  • FAQs

Is biodegradable the same as compostable?

Biodegradability and composting are not the same. Composting needs to be done under particular conditions of aeration, temperature, light and presence of microbes; whereas, biodegradability does not depend on such specificities. 

The end result of composting (compost) is of good value always and can be used to improve soil, conserve water, and cut down GHG emissions. Whereas, in the case of biodegradability it is not incumbent that the end result is positive. 

Therefore, in a one-liner, it can be summarised that all compostable material is biodegradable but all biodegradable material is not compostable. 

What is composting?

Composting is a process in which organic matter is converted into compost. A compost may act as a natural fertiliser that may improve the organic contents present in the soil. 

There are various drivers of composting that are responsible for making compost from waste. These may include microbes, right conditions of temperature, pressure and aeration. Under these conditions, the degradative capacity of microbes is augmented leading to the formation of compost. 

This compost has numerous benefits which advocate that more composting should be done not just by organisations and institutions, but also by every household. 

The greatest advantage of composting is that it is an efficient way of reducing and recycling waste while also increasing the organic contents of the soil. There are many stood out applications and advantages of composting which will be detailed in the remaining sections of the article. 

An understanding of composting is very important in discerning the difference between composting and biodegradability. That is because both the terms have a lot of similarities and that is why they are often used interchangeably. 

Let us explore what can be composted. Examples of materials that can be made a compost include:

  • Eggshells
  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables
  • Grass clippings
  • Paper
  • Tea bags
  • Newspapers
  • Nutshells 
  • Leaves
  • House plants
  • Hair 
  • Fur
  • Fireplace ashes 

What are the types of composting

There are usually two types of composting. These are:

  • Cold composting
  • Hot composting

The first type of composting is less managed composting. You don’t have to invest much time and resources in this type of composting. Simply put, you employ nature for this type of composting. 

While cold composting may appear appealing, it has a number of disadvantages too. For example, since there is no need to tend to the waste put in the process of cold composting, this process will take much more time as compared to hot composting. It may take more than 2 years. 

If you are up to cold composting, you need to make sure that you have ample time and an undisturbed place for this type of composting. Patience is the key here. 

Another disadvantage anchored with the cold composting process is that since there is no high temperature involved, this type of composting is bound to provide room for microbes and decomposers. 

In this scenario, chances are that the microbes present in the compost may cause health implications to you and therefore, care and precautions are necessary in this case. 

The other type of composting is termed hot composting because it requires more management, more labour and of course, high temperature. 

This type of composting will not let you put all the work on mother nature. You will have to step up and do your part. That is why this hot composting is regarded as a more managed and organised form of composting. 

Hot composting also overcome the issues that are linked with cold composting. Since it requires a greater degree of management, the time required for this type of composting is reduced. It may happen in about 4 months. However, in some cases, hot composting may also take up to 12 months. 

The issue of microbes is also overcome in the case of hot composting. Since this type of composting is done at higher temperatures, chances are that you do not need to worry about the microbes problem in this case. 

Be it hot composting or cold composting, each has its own merits and demerits. There is always a tradeoff when it comes to natural processes. What really matters is what is your need based on which you will need to choose one. 

What are the applications of composting? (7 applications of composting) 

As stated, there is a multitude of applications that are linked to composting. First and foremost, composting is a natural way to reduce and reuse waste. In this way, less stress is put on waste management endeavours. 

This is an important application because the current waste generation is already at 2 billion tons globally. This means that an average person is responsible for more than 4-5 kgs of waste production per day. 

In these grave scenarios, if there is any way to reduce this waste, it is a great relief not just for the environment but also for the people. 

Another important application of composting is that the compost produced can be used as a natural fertiliser. This is also very important because the conventional agrochemicals used to improve soil quality are made from harmful chemicals. 

These chemicals may leach out into the soil and water bodies and may cause all sorts of degradation. The soil and aquatic species are affected, there is pollution, and through animals, these chemicals enter the food chains eventually ending up in our bellies. 

If compost is used as a natural fertiliser, then all these problems can be overcome in a sustainable manner while also ensuring that there is less waste generation. 

Another great advantage of composting is that it results in less water consumption by plants. That is because it is studied that high organic contents in the soil lead to better water retention. 

If water is retained more, it will be conserved more. And compost is nothing but decaying organic matter. If compost is added to soil, the organic contents of the soil are increased which leads to better water retention. 

It is studied that if there is an increase of 1% soil organic content, then it may lead to better water retention of more than 20,000 gallons per acre. These figures are beyond encouraging. 

The consumption of water in agricultural and crop-related activities is already a big concern. In some states, more than 80% of available water is used for agriculture. Water is a limited resource which is further scarce in developing countries. 

For example, Pakistan is rapidly transitioning towards water-scarce which will create many problems. In these cases, if there is any way to conserve water, it is a great blessing and composting is one such blessing.

Another advantage of composting is the reduction of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are known to cause global warming which is affecting the earth and life severely. 

When compostable waste is dumped in a landfill, there is anaerobic digestion which leads to the release of methane and carbon dioxide. Both of these gases are greenhouse gases that contribute directly to the problem of global warming.

Global warming, in turn, gives rise to many other environmental anomalies and complications such as the melting of glaciers, rising sea levels, unprecedented weather patterns, deforestation et cetera. 

The engine of the earth is linkage. When there is a disruption in one aspect, other aspects are also affected gravely. This is also seen in the case of global warming. 

In a nutshell, the following are the advantages and applications of composting: 

  • Reduced waste
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • Water conservation
  • Improvement of soil quality
  • Better water retention profile
  • Reduced personal food waste
  • Reduced soil and water pollution 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability is the process through which waste is broken down by the action of microbes so that it can become a part of nature again. The microbes that are responsible for this breakdown may be bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, yeast, and decomposers. Below are some examples of such organisms: 

  • Pseudomonas fluorescens
  • Bacillus vallismortis bt-dsce01
  • Klebsiella pneumoniae CH001
  • Aspergillus oryzae strain A5
  • Sphingobacterium sp
  • Bacillus sp.
  • Xanthomonas sp.

Microbes are, therefore, involved in the reduction of waste. It is added in the basic code of mother nature to avoid waste formation and accumulation because mother nature knows that if waste is generated and accumulated, there will be great problems to deal with. 

That is why biodegradability is so protected and highly regarded. It is very essential because it ensures that the waste produced gets back to the system in a cyclical fashion and does not cause any anomalies. 

However, man is notoriously known to corrupt the basic codes of nature. For example, the environmental problems that man brought outweigh all the anomalies that have happened until now, however, man’s arrival on this planet as a species is very short. 

 It is regarded that most of the man-made materials which are synthesised in the lab can not degrade by the action of microbes. This is because microbes are unable to break down the inner structures of complex waste. 

Result? The waste created by man may remain in the environment for many hundred years. If waste remains this long, environmental and human problems are sure to come. 

Non-biodegradable waste is known to cause a lot of harm to nature and man, other than being non-biodegradable.

What is the importance of biodegradability?

Biodegradability is important because if there is no biodegradability, there will be a lot of negative impacts on the environment as well as life. These effects can be used as an example to assert why biodegradability is important. 

These effects can be: 

  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • GHG emissions
  • Rise in temperature
  • A rise in sea levels
  • Melting glaciers
  • More floods
  • Frequent droughts
  • Unprecedented weather patterns
  • Insects attacks
  • Land degradation
  • Food shortage
  • Food security concerns
  • Species endangerment 
  • Infiltration into the food chains
  • Loss of aquatic life
  • Accumulation of plastics
  • Disruptions of ecosystems

However, it may also be asserted that the effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment, they are also impactful on health as well. Below are the common health issues that arise from non-biodegradable waste:

  • Abnormality
  • Reproductive complications
  • Hormonal issues
  • Damage to foetus
  • Necrosis
  • Skin damage
  • Eye allergies
  • Organ defects
  • Cancer
  • Mutation
  • Psychological complication
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Neuro-toxicity
  • Neurological complications

Is biodegradable the same as compostable?

In the light of the above details, it can be concluded that although there is a similarity between biodegradability and composting, and often both terms are used interchangeably; however, both the terms are not the same. 

Composting needs to be done under particular conditions of aeration, temperature, light and presence of microbes; whereas, biodegradability does not depend on such specificities. 

The end result of composting (compost) is of good value always and can be used to improve soil, conserve water, and cut down GHG emissions. Whereas, in the case of biodegradability it is not incumbent that the end result is positive. 

Therefore, in a one-liner, it can be summarised that all compostable material is biodegradable but all biodegradable material is not compostable. 

Conclusion 

It can be concluded that biodegradability and composting are not the same. Composting needs to be done under particular conditions of aeration, temperature, light and presence of microbes; whereas, it is not mandatory in the case of biodegradability.  

The compost is of good value resulting in improved soil, conserved water, and decreased global warming causing GHG.  Whereas, in the case of biodegradability it is not incumbent that the end result is positive. 

It can be summarised that all compostable material is biodegradable but all biodegradable material is not compostable. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is biodegradable the same as compostable?

Which is better: biodegradable or compostable?

Each has its own merits and demerits. But, compostable material will never pose a threat to the environment which is not the case for biodegradable material. In this way, it can be said that compostable is better. 

How long does it take to biodegrade?

Biodegradation may take a few days to several months depending upon the type of material and external conditions. Fruits may degrade in five days but bioplastics may take up to three years to degrade. 

References 

  • Benjawan, L., Sihawong, S., Chayaprasert, W., & Liamlaem, W. (2015). Composting of biodegradable organic waste from Thai households in a semi-continuous composter. Compost science & utilization, 23(1), 11-17.
  • Bastioli, C. (1998, December). Biodegradable materials—present situation and future perspectives. In Macromolecular Symposia (Vol. 135, No. 1, pp. 193-204). Weinheim, Germany: WILEY‐VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA.
  • Bryant, Lara. (May 27, 2015). Organic Matter Can Improve Your Soil’s Water Holding Capacity. Retrieved from: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/lara-bryant/organic-matter-can-improve-your-soils-water-holding-capacity

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