Is compostable biodegradable? (5 prerequisites for composting)

In this article, the difference and similarities between biodegradability and composting will be highlighted. Other covered aspects will be: 

  • What is composting?
  • What are the benefits of composting?
  • What are the types of composting?
  • What is biodegradation?
  • What will happen if there is no biodegradation?
  • Is compostable biodegradable?
  • FAQs

Is compostable biodegradable?

Yes, if a product is compostable then it will also be biodegradable. It can be summarised in a one-liner that all compostable material is biodegradable but all biodegradable material is not compostable

There is a lot of similarity between composting and biodegradability. Both processes involve degradation by the action of microbes.

Biodegradability is defined as the microbial breakdown of waste into simpler substances so that the waste may become a part of nature again. 

Composting can be defined as a process in which organic waste is degraded to be made into compost. Compost is explained as dead organic matter. 

However, as composting is a more deliberate process, it is more specific than biodegradation. While composting requires specific conditions, biodegradation may happen anywhere. 

Further, the end of composting (compost) has to be non-toxic and rich in organic content. This, however, is not a necessity in the case of biodegradation. 

What is composting? (5 prerequisites for composting)

Composting can be defined as a process in which organic waste is degraded to be made into compost. Compost is explained as dead organic matter. 

You may wonder what is the need for composting. Composting is very essential because the compost made can be used as a natural fertiliser. 

The natural fertilisers obtained from composting can be used as a substitute for synthetic fertilisers. This will give a significant edge to the environment because there are a lot of negative impacts of synthetic fertilisers on the soil and the environment. 

Synthetic fertilisers are made out of various chemicals that may cause land and water pollution. These chemicals can also leach out into the water bodies and thus affect aquatic life. The food chains are interrupted at various levels and many species are put at great risk in this way.

It is even claimed that the effects of synthetic fertilisers are antagonistic to the water retention capacities of soil leading to water wastage and loss of non-renewable resources. 

However, it is claimed that the process of composting needs to be done with certain specificities in mind. There are several conditions that have to be ensured before composting can be done. These are: 

  • The material should have organic content
  • The material should not be toxic 
  • The material should be biodegradable 
  • The material to be composted should not emit any harmful fumes or gases
  • The material should not be contaminated or infiltrated in any way. It should be pure

The process of composting is regarded as very similar to the process of biodegradation. Even in some cases, both the terms are used interchangeably. However, there are some individual differences between the two processes that create an unbridgeable rift between the two. 

The article shall explore the answer to the question that what is the difference between biodegradation and composting and whether if a product is compostable, is it biodegradable too.

What are the benefits of composting?

The process of composting comes along with many benefits. Compost is dead organic matter. When compost is added to the soil, it increases the organic content of the soil. This leads to better fertility. 

This, in turn, leads to better growth of plants and crops. Therefore, composting has a direct relationship between healthy vegetation and crop. The economic and substantial benefits that come along can also not be ignored. 

It is also claimed that composting also leads to better water retention. When compost is added to the soil, the organic content increases. This leads to an increased ability to hold water better. 

This leads to increased water conservation. Ground and fresh water is already very limited resource. Much of the water is taken up by agriculture. Therefore, if water can be saved in any way, it gives a great nudge to the water conservation acts and this impacts everyone in a very positive way. 

It is estimated that only by increasing the organic content by 5%, the water retention profile can be positively nudged up quadruply. 

Compost can also be used as a natural fertiliser which decreases the need for the production and use of synthetic, chemical-based fertilisers. These fertilisers cause a lot of harm to the environment and life. This may include: 

  • Soil degradation
  • Nitrogen leaching
  • Soil compaction
  • Reduction of organic content of the soil 
  • Decreased soil carbon 
  • Contamination of waterways 
  • Change of nature of the soil
  • Harm to microbes present in the soil
  • Expensive
  • Eutrophication of freshwater 
  • Toxic & poisonous to humans and small children
  • Exposure may also lead to harmful burns 

What are the types of composting?

There are two types of composting: 

  • Hot composting 
  • Cold composting

Hot composting makes use of higher temperatures. It is a more deliberate process. Since there is a higher extent of deliberation required, the time taken for this type of composting is lesser as compared to the other type. 

Hot composting makes use of higher temperatures. This results in decreased chances of the presence of harmful microbes which may cause problems to humans. 

The other type of composting is called cold composting. As the name suggests, this type of composting is done at normal temperatures and there is less amount of input required. 

However, since there is less amount of input required, the time taken for this process is greater than its counterpart. Further, there is an increased tendency of harmful microbes in this type of compost which may become harmful to humans and other forms of life. 

What is biodegradation? 

Biodegradability is defined as the microbial breakdown of waste into simpler substances so that the waste may become a part of nature again. 

You may wonder why this is important. The process of breakdown of waste into simpler substances is important because it reduces waste accumulation and assimilation. 

If there is waste accumulation, there will be negative impacts of the waste on the environment and human life. 

Some factors are essential for the biodegradation process. These factors may include 

  • Microbes
  • Aeration 
  • Sunlight 
  • Temperature 
  • Pressure 
  • Other external conditions 

You may think of biodegradability as a natural dustbin because it leads to waste segregation. If there is no biodegradability, there will be negative effects reciprocated to life and the environment. 

Based on biodegradability, there is a general understanding that waste may be categorised into two classes. One is biodegradable waste and the other is a non-biodegradable waste. 

Biodegradable waste is the type of waste which may be degraded by the action of microbes. There is a general rule of thumb that products and substances made from natural sources like plants and animals are included in the list of biodegradable waste. 

Whereas, products and substances made from non-natural materials can not be broken down by the action of microbes and enzymes. These products are thus included in the category of non-biodegradable waste. 

Examples of biodegradable waste may include: 

  • Plant waste
  • Animal waste
  • Manure
  • Compost 
  • Natural fabric
  • Bioplastics 
  • Natural resins 

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include: 

  • Synthetic polymers
  • Plastics such as PET, LDPE, HDPE, PVC et cetera
  • Synthetic fabric such as rayon or polyester
  • Synthetic chemicals like DDT or agrochemicals 
  • Nylon 
  • Dyneema

What will happen if there is no biodegradation?

Biodegradation is an important process and it is necessary for our survival as a species. If there is no biodegradation, there will be no check on waste generation. To understand this, let us imagine an analogy. 

Consider that for some reason you are unable to dump your waste away from your house. The waste remains inside the house. In some days, you won’t be able to segregate and contain the waste. 

In a matter of months, the waste will pollute every area of your house. In conclusion, your house will become unlivable. The same is the case for biodegradation and our earth. 

If there is no degradation of waste, there will be an inevitable decapitation of our ability to survive and thrive. There will be no place to dump the waste. The waste management systems will collapse. 

The problem is not just the accumulation of waste but the related environmental and health-related anomalies that will strike down as a by-product. It is prognosticated that there will be countless negative impacts of non-biodegradable waste. 

Some of them may be assessed as an example. There are a lot of known impacts of non-biodegradable waste which may include: 

  • Waste accumulation 
  • Ozone depletion 
  • GHG emission
  • Global warming 
  • Soil erosion
  • Deforestation 
  • Destruction of habitats 
  • Loss of life
  • Disruption of ecosystem 
  • Infiltration into the food chains

It is also argued that the effects of non-biodegradable waste are not just limited to the environment but are also expanded to life and human health. Below are some of the common negative impacts of non-biodegradable waste on life and human health:

  • Organ damage
  • Hormone disruption 
  • Lung dysfunction 
  • Cancer
  • Developmental issues
  • Neuro Complications 
  • Necrosis 
  • Damage to the foetus 
  • Behavioural issues and complications

Is compostable biodegradable? 

It can now be summarised that there is a lot of similarity between composting and biodegradability. Both processes involve degradation by the action of microbes.

However, as composting is a more deliberate process, it is more specific than biodegradation. While composting requires specific conditions, biodegradation may happen anywhere. 

Further, the end of composting (compost) has to be non-toxic and rich in organic content. This, however, is not a necessity in the case of biodegradation. 

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

Frequently Asked Questions: Is compostable biodegradable?

What agents are responsible for biodegradation?

Biodegradation happens because of degradative enzymes and microbes such as bacteria or decomposers. 

How much time does composting take to happen?

Composting may happen in about 12 months to 2 years. It depends on the external conditions and the type of composting. 

References

  • Hawkins, W. L. (1984). Polymer degradation. In Polymer Degradation and stabilization (pp. 3-34). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  • Lai, Y. Z. (2000). Chemical degradation. Wood and cellulosic chemistry, 443-512.
  • Sivan, A. (2011). New perspectives in plastic biodegradation. Current opinion in biotechnology, 22(3), 422-426.
  • Alexander, M. (1999). Biodegradation and bioremediation. Gulf Professional Publishing.
  • de Bertoldi, M. D., Vallini, G. E., & Pera, A. (1983). The biology of composting: a review. Waste Management & Research, 1(2), 157-176.
  • Stentiford, E. I. (1996). Composting control: principles and practice. In The science of composting (pp. 49-59). Springer, Dordrecht.
  • Bennaton, Rob. (February 17, 2015). Composting & water conservation. Retrieved from: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=16800

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