Biodegradable vs Compostable Materials: What's The Difference?
Updated: Apr 24
It can be difficult to make sustainable choices when it comes to the products we use every day. Terms like "biodegradable" and "compostable" are often used interchangeably, inaccurately, or misleadingly – making it difficult for anyone trying to shop mindfully.
In order to make truly planet-friendly choices, it's important to understand what biodegradable and compostable mean, what they don't mean, and how they differ.
Take a look at our guide to sustainable materials for more information on the different sustainable materials used in manufacturing.
What Are Biodegradable Materials?
Most natural materials are biodegradable. It can be broken down by naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. Every material will biodegrade, given enough time This includes things like paper, cotton, wood, bamboo, palm leaves, and fungi. Food scraps, eggshells, and manure are also biodegradable.
These materials will eventually decompose and return to the earth, but the process can take years. And, depending on how the material was made and what chemicals it contains, the end result may not be very environmentally friendly.
For example, while paper is biodegradable, the process of making it often uses harmful chemicals and bleach. Once it decomposes, those chemicals can leach into the soil and cause problems for plants and animals.
Cotton is another biodegradable material that isn't always eco-friendly. Cotton farming uses a lot of water and harmful pesticides. And, while the plant itself is biodegradable, the dyes and other chemicals used to make cotton clothing can pollute the environment
In comparison, materials like styrofoam, plastic, and aluminum are typically deemed non-biodegradable because of how long they take to break down.
Typical Biodegradable materials
A biodegradable product will eventually break down into a few organic materials under the right conditions. This could include a product like a plastic-lined paper coffee cup. While the paper will break down, and eventually the plastic, there is still microplastic waste left behind.
What Are Compostable Materials?
Compostable materials are organic matter that can be broken down into nutrient-rich soil. This includes things like food scraps, eggshells, manure, grass clippings, leaves, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and tea bags.
Compostable products add value to the planet's ecosystem by decomposing into nutrient-rich compost.
Unlike biodegradable materials, compostable items will break down quickly and completely into soil that can be used to help plants grow. The process is safe and environmentally friendly.
For example, coffee grounds and tea bags can be added directly to the garden as a natural fertilizer. Food scraps can be composted and used as an eco-friendly alternative to chemical fertilizers. And eggshells can be crushed and added to the soil to improve drainage and aeration.
Typical Compostable Materials:
Fruit and Vegetable Peels
Compostable items create humus when broken down, which is the richest and most essential component of all soils. The high level of microbial activity in humus boosts beneficial microbes within your soil which, in turn, assists plants to strengthen their immune systems. Therefore, compostable products do not add toxic elements to the environment after degradation.
Related Article: 7 Sustainable Gardening Practices for a Healthier Environment
Biodegradable vs Compostable Materials (Side-by-side Comparison)
Both biodegradable and compostable can be used as a replacement for petroleum-based plastics which are ubiquitously found in all kinds of consumer products. Biodegradable material when mainly used in plastics breaks down into microplastics faster than regular plastic, in any conditions (compost, landfill, soil). It is possible to find biodegradable products made from plant-based materials (like plants, corn oil, or starch) which are easier to degrade.
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These biodegradable products can take several months to break down and some recent studies found that some of these products degrade to leave toxic waste behind. This toxic waste is called microplastics, so even if you cannot see it, these micro materials have toxic components for our environment.
Environmental Benefits & Impact
- They don’t need a specific environment to degrade, just depends on the temperature, moisture present, and time. May release harmful residual byproducts
- Compostable products use less water, require less energy, and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing process.
- They are environmentally preferable and cause no harm to soil and plants.
Usually takes three to six months to decompose. That’s much quicker than regular plastic which takes hundreds of years
90% of compostable products degrade in 180 days specifically in a compost environment
Poly (Butylene Adipate-Co-Terephthalate) (PBAT), Poly (Butylene Succinate) (PBS), Polylactic Acid (PLA), Polycaprolactone (PCL).
- Organic matter like cornstarch, sugarcane, potato starch, plant pulp and others.
- PVOH or Polyvinyl alcohol that will dissolve in water after reuse, leaving only water and CO2
Biodegradable and Compostable Product Examples
- Biodegradable plastic bags: These are biodegradable plastic colored t-shirt bags for supermarket shopping.
- Biodegradable Plastic Packaging: This is 100% biodegradable plastic packaging for shopping.
- Biodegradable Plastic Trays: These are biodegradable food plastic blister trays
- Compostable Paper Products: These include uncoated napkins, uncoated paper plates and paper towels (not used with cleaning chemicals).
- Compostable Clamshells, Plates or Bowls: These are uncoated paper-like fiber products
- Compostable Cups and Bowl, cups used for cold beverages and paper hot cups and bowls.
- Compostable Utensils
Compostable films and bags
Why Is Knowing the Difference So important?
Compostable goods are specifically organic matter that decomposes, resulting in a useful end product with many benefits including fertilizing and boosting soil health, as opposed to biodegradable items which refer to any material that eventually degrades and breaks down into base materials in the environment.
Most importantly, compostable items don’t leave poisonous residue behind because it’s already organic. In contrast, biodegradable products can sometimes take years to decompose and might even contaminate the environment with toxins.
For example, plant-based plastics are frequently advertised as biodegradable. They're supposed to decompose more rapidly than regular plastic and be friendly to the environment, but if the right environmental elements aren't present, it might take just as long for them to break down.
Though external environmental factors can affect how quickly biodegradable products break down, compostable items will decompose naturally and relatively in a short time nonetheless.
Even though many items are advertised as “biodegradable,” composting facilities frequently reject them because they either take too long to break down or will not decompose entirely. This can cause problems with the composting process.
Internationally Recognised Standards
The development of the European Standard and US Standard ASTM standards lays down criteria for what can or cannot be described as compostable and what can be called biodegradable to help manufacturers and businesses.
It's important that both brands and consumers know the difference. Customers want to know they're making the best choice when purchasing from you. For example, your customers need to know how to properly dispose of your packaging or end-of-life item. Being clear that the materials used are compostable creates confidence in your sustainable brand and allows consumers to make smarter purchasing decisions.
See our article on sustainable products life Cycle and Assessment
Definition of Other Related Terms
Degradable describes anything capable of breaking down into its base materials or disintegrating over time. There is no established procedure for how it decomposes, how long it will take, or what will be produced.
A compostable product, as defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA), may be termed a zero-waste product. It is a designation for goods that can be consumed and recovered "without discharges to land, water, or air that endanger the environment or human health."
The term "Oxo-Degradable" is a facade intended to make people believe that the product is eco-friendly i.e. greenwashing. In reality, Oxo-degradable products are just conventional plastic mixed with an additive.
Not only is oxo-degradable plastic bad for the environment, but it also creates harmful microplastics. Both degradable and oxo-degradable products are not compostable and are not suitable for recycling. They should be disposed of in a landfill as with done with other types of plastics.
We have broken down the difference between recycling and upcycling in this article.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Which Is A Better Option Biodegradable Or Compostable Materials?
Compostable goods have been subjected to intense testing in order to guarantee that they degrade within a set period and do not release any contaminants into the environment.
Some "biodegradable" products don't have government regulations regulating their degradation, meaning they might not be as effective as we initially think. Products labeled only as biodegradable cannot be easily or fully composted and must therefore be sent to a landfill.
Using compostable materials is far better for the environment. In fact, composting benefits our planet in multiple ways by reducing the amount of waste in landfills and also replenishing nutrients back into the soil.
Can The Terms Be Used Interchangeably?
Biodegradable and compostable goods are becoming more popular. However, the words aren't interchangeable. All compostable products are biodegradable, however, not all biodegradable items can be put into a composter.
Although they both may appear similar, breaking down material waste using naturally occurring or biological processes, there are distinctions related to their own production materials, how they decompose, and the residual elements after decomposition.
Final Thoughts on Biodegradable and Compostable Materials
It is important to make the distinction between "biodegradable" and "compostable." The term "biodegradable" is unregulated and often doesn't mean what it says. Only products that have been certified as compostable can be called such.
If you want to find environmentally friendly compostable products, be careful of the phrase “biodegradable”. It's often misleading. Instead, look for different standards and certifications that guarantee a product is compostable.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to sustainable packaging solutions and materials
Looking to incorporate eco-friendly packaging for your toolkits? Get in touch