Biodegradable vs. Compostable - What's the Difference?
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Biodegradable and compostable are two words often used when talking about organic waste but tend to have very different meanings. This is especially true when it comes down to hard materials and plastics. In this blog, we will examine the differences between these two terms and why it’s important to know the difference.
Biodegradable means that an item can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces, either by microbes or the environment. Some plastics that claim “biodegradability” break down to small micro-plastics. These small pieces cannot be used by living creatures and plants. Many items, plastic included, can biodegrade if given enough time - but that doesn’t mean they are good for the environment. Plastics can take decades to hundreds of years to biodegrade in nature and often leave toxic residue behind.
A product being compostable means that it is capable of being broken down into natural elements in a compost environment, usually carbon and water molecules that can be used to make new life. Fruits, vegetables, other plant-based products including plant fibers are all good examples of things that will compost harm-free in nature.
Generally, we think of items as compostable if they can break down in weeks or months into compost and other usable organic material.
A product can be biodegradable but not compostable. However, all compostable items are biodegradable. Always look for items that are compostable vs. biodegradable on your product packaging.
4 Main features of Items that are Compostable
This means the packaging material is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms in its natural environment in smaller pieces.
The fragment and loss of visibility in the final compost and a total absence of any visual pollution, typically needing to happen in weeks or a few months depending on conditions. Most certifications are based on 90-day laboratory compostability testing protocols.
Absence of Negative Effects in Organic Waste Processing/Composting
Absence of negative effects in the process of composting in facilities or at home. For example, compostable plastics are not easily sorted from regular plastic, so often are sent back to landfill and the temperatures of home compost piles often do not reach those required for compostable plastics to break down at home.
Absence of Negative Effects in Final Compost
The final compost material doesn’t have any toxic or negative materials in it. An example of a negative effect is molded plant fibre that contains PFAs (Teflon-like molecules) for oil resistance that are linked to cancer and are forever chemicals.
So what should I look for?
When possible, especially when choosing a single-use or disposable item, try and choose one that is made from natural materials. Many products that are certified compostable do not compost well in facilities or home compost piles. Most certifications just show an item that has been tested in a laboratory setting, however, most compost facilities and home compost piles are not the perfect laboratory setting. Many certified compostable products, like compostable plastics, may not be sorted properly at the recycling facilities, or cannot compost properly at the facility.
Why Greenlid stands out
All of Greenlid products are made with natural materials and are certified compostable. We also ensure that our products will work well in facilities process across North America. Our products do not contain PFAs. Plus, we use sustainably sourced non-wood renewable materials such as bamboo, birch, wheat, sugar cane, and palm leaf.