What is the difference between biodegradable and composting? (3 differences) 

In this article, the differences between biodegradable and composting will be assessed. Other topics covered to strengthen the base will be: 

  • What is biodegradable?
  • How is waste categorised based on biodegradability?
  • Why is there a need for biodegradable waste?
  • What is composting?
  • Which waste can be composted?
  • Why is there a need for composting?
  • What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable waste?
  • FAQs

What is the difference between biodegradable and composting?

Biodegradable and composting are very similar in nature; however, there are some fundamental differences between biodegradable and compostable. 

These differences can be summed up into: 

  • Every natural material can be biodegraded but composting can only be done to waste that has organic content and is non-toxic
  • Composting needs to be done at specific conditions of aeration, temperature, humidity, pressure, and microbes. Biodegradation may happen anywhere. 
  • The compost can be used as natural fertiliser while also giving off environmental benefits like conserved water, and reduced GHG. Biodegradable waste is also beneficial but may also harm the environment and people by being hazardous and toxic. 

What is biodegradable?

A material or substance can be termed biodegradable if it can be degraded by the action of microbes. Examples of these microbes may include bacteria, decomposers, fungi, algae et cetera. 

Biodegradability can be explained as a natural process through which microbes break down complex waste into simpler substances. This conversion is also facilitated by external conditions such as temperature or sunlight. 

The main driver of biodegradation is microbes. These microbes include bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, yeast, and decomposers. They break down the structures of complex waste so that the simple waste may become part of nature again. 

Biodegradability is nature’s way of ensuring that there is no waste and that the waste produced is taken back into the system. It is because mother nature is aware that if there is waste, there will be complications and obstructions. 

To understand this, the article invited you to an analogy. Imagine that for some reason you are unable to dispose of waste in your home or office. The situation may be manageable for some days but not very long.

Now, imagine that you can not dispose of the waste for several hundred years. The first thought that you will get is that your home or office will become unlivable. The same is the case for biodegradability and the earth. 

Biodegradability is the earth’s dustbin and earth is our home. If there is no biodegradability, there is no waste disposal. This will, eventually, steal our home’ capacity to sustain life. Results? Mass extinction and environmental degradations. 

How is waste categorised based on biodegradability?

Regarding biodegradability, there is a general understanding that natural materials and natural waste are biodegradable. This is because it coincides with the code of nature. The microbes have no difficulty in breaking down the structures of this type of waste. 

On the other hand, we have the type of waste which can not be degraded by the action of microbes. This type of waste is mostly considered man-made. That is because microbes cannot degrade the inner structures of synthetic materials and as a result, this type of waste may persist for hundreds of years. 

Examples of biodegradable waste include: 

  • Food waste
  • Natural fibres
  • Natural fabrics 
  • Plant waste
  • Animal waste
  • Manure
  • Sewage 
  • Crop waste
  • Waste from slaughterhouse  
  • Drywall mud 

Non-biodegradable waste, on the other hand, can not be degraded by the action of microbes. It is mainly because microbes cannot break the structures of this type of waste. 

It is generally perceived that materials that are synthesised in the lab from petroleum or fossil fuels are not biodegradable. The tragedy is that with increased commercialisation and consumerism, more such waste is generated which leaves us with unprecedented and grave issues. 

Synthetic polymers are regarded as the most common non-biodegradable waste. Other examples may include: 

  • Electronic waste
  • Plastics 
  • Polyvinyl Chloride
  • Synthetic resins
  • Synthetic fibres
  • Dyneema 
  • PHA 
  • Nuclear waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Chemical waste

Why is there a need for biodegradable?

Non-biodegradable waste is known to cause a lot of harm to nature and man, other than being non-biodegradable. There is an endless list of these effects but some prominent ones can be cited as examples. 

  • Greenhouse effect
  • Global warming
  • Deforestation
  • Soil leaching
  • Pollution
  • Soil erosion 
  • Destruction of habitats
  • Disruption of food chains
  • Species endangerment 
  • Loss of life 
  • Medical complications
  • Harm to the economy
  • Unforeseen and unprecedented climatic anomalies 
  • Pest & insect attacks 

These are some of the effects to illustrate why biodegradable waste is important and needed. 

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. 

Which waste can be composted?

All the waste with good amounts of organic content can be composted. It is also important to ensure that there is no toxicity factor in the waste that you are about to compost. 

Composting may be done through two approaches. One is cold composting and the other is hot composting. 

Hot composting is a type of composting which is better managed and tracked. It requires the use of higher temperatures to achieve the end results in a time-efficient manner. 

Hot composting may be done in four months to 12 months depending upon the type of material composted. 

Cold composting, on the other hand, required the minimum amount of handling and scrutiny. It is just left in nature so that mother nature may do its part. 

This type of composting is prone to having harmful microbes in it because there is no high temperature involved. Further, cold composting is bound to take much more time as compared to hot composting. 

The processing time of cold composting may vary from 1 to 2 years. Now, let us explore some examples that can be composted.

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

Why is there a need for composting?

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. 

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. 

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 melting 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. 

The applications of composting can be summarised as: 

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

What is the difference between biodegradable and composting? (3 differences between biodegradable and compostable) 

Based on the details covered up to now, it can be concluded that biodegradable and composting are very similar in nature; however, there are some fundamental differences between biodegradable and compostable. 

These differences can be summed up into: 

  • Every natural material can be biodegraded but composting can only be done to waste that has organic content and is non-toxic
  • Composting needs to be done at specific conditions of aeration, temperature, humidity, pressure, and microbes. Biodegradation may happen anywhere. 
  • The compost can be used as natural fertiliser while also giving off environmental benefits like conserved water, and reduced GHG. Biodegradable waste is also beneficial but may also harm the environment and people by being hazardous and toxic. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that biodegradable and composting are very similar processes but have some basic differences that separate them on the basis of utility, specifications and peculiarity. 

All compostable waste is biodegradable but it is not the other way round because composting requires a certain set of conditions and specifics. 

Frequently Asked Questions: What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable?

How long does it take to compost?

It may take from 4 months to 2 years depending upon the type of composting, materials composted, and external conditions. 

Which gases are released in landfills?

In landfills, GHG gases like methane and carbon dioxide are released after the anaerobic digestion of waste. 

References 

  • Bulkeley, H., & Askins, K. (2009). Waste interfaces: biodegradable waste, municipal policy and everyday practice. Geographical Journal, 175(4), 251-260.
  • Zhang, C., Xu, T., Feng, H., & Chen, S. (2019). Greenhouse gas emissions from landfills: A review and bibliometric analysis. Sustainability, 11(8), 2282.
  • Cooperband, L. (2002). The art and science of composting. Center for Integrated agricultural systems.
  • Hoornweg, D., Thomas, L., & Otten, L. (1999). Composting and its applicability in developing countries. World Bank working paper series, 8, 1-46

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