The Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable

December 12, 2019

As you search for ways to reduce your daily damage to the planet, two common buzzwords will inevitably pop up along the way: biodegradable and compostable. They both involve materials being broken down so our landfills and waterways don’t continue to get loaded up with waste. But while many companies are becoming more and more socially responsible and aware of their environmental impact, for consumers, all the labels and terms can get confusing quickly. 

Let’s break down what each process means and weigh in on the pros and cons. 

Biodegradable

When a product is biodegradable, it can break down without oxygen and turn into carbon dioxide, water and biomass over a certain period of time. That said, technically anything is biodegradable, including batteries. There is no set time limit on what can be biodegradable. Some things can biodegrade over the course of a few weeks, but most biodegradable plastics take several months or even years. 

Companies can hide behind the label and sell products that, while technically are biodegradable, will still wind up in a landfill for several years. For example, single-use biodegradable plastic cutlery often does not fully decompose in a landfill-- and it isn’t recyclable. You can’t toss it in a recycling bin in the hopes it can become a new product for various reasons such as contamination and degradation of quality. 

Biodegradable products are great when they work as we want them to, but don’t be fooled by all the pretty packaging and buzzwords. Do your research first, and then try to purchase reusable products whenever you can. 

Compostable

When something is compostable that means it can break down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass in small pieces in about 90 days. Millions of tiny microbes consume the waste and transform it into something extremely valuable to people like farmers and anyone who has a home garden. It also doesn’t leave behind any toxic residue because it’s already organic matter. 

The major difference between compostable and biodegradable is that compostable products require a specific setting and process in order to do its thing, and biodegradable products break down on their own naturally. Compostable products will take much longer to break down if in a landfill, especially an “air locked” landfill where there will be no oxygen. Neither option is particularly better than the other if you’re being mindful about what you’re purchasing and not falling for marketing ploys. And both options are better than purchasing single-use plastic items that seemingly never break down. 

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