In the realm of eco-friendly products, two terms often get intertwined or mistaken for one another: biodegradable and compostable. While both sound like ideal solutions for our waste problem, understanding their distinctions is important for sustainable choices. This article delves into the differences between biodegradable and compostable materials, aiming to debunk common misconceptions.
Definitions: Biodegradable vs Compostable
Biodegradable products break down and return to nature. Ideally, over time, they degrade from the actions of naturally occurring microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. However, the duration and by-products of this decomposition can vary widely. Items can take anywhere from a few days to years to break down, depending on the environmental conditions and materials in question.
Compostable items, on the other hand, are organic substances that can be used as a soil additive post decomposition. For an item to be labelled as compostable, it generally should decompose in a compost setting within 90 days. Moreover, it should not release harmful residues and should be capable of supporting plant life.
Biodegradable products are designed to break down into natural elements, which means they might not persist in the environment as long as non-degradable products. But just because an item is biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s free from environmental harm. There are a number of challenges:-
Ambiguous Timeframe: “Biodegradable” does not provide a specific timeframe for decomposition. Some products might take years or even decades to break down.
Toxic Residues: While biodegradable products break down, they may release toxic residues or pollutants. Some so-called biodegradable plastics degrade into microplastics, tiny fragments that can persist in the environment and harm marine life.
Methane Emissions: Like compostable products, if biodegradable items end up in anaerobic environments like landfills, they can produce methane.
False Security: The term “biodegradable” can sometimes offer consumers a false sense of eco-friendliness. Just because an item is labelled as biodegradable does not mean it’s the best environmental choice.
True compostable products offer more environmental benefits, such as:-
Soil Enrichment: Compostable products decay into organic matter that helps improve soil health. This can rejuvenate the soil, aiding in plant growth, and reduce the need for chemical fertilisers.
Carbon Sequestration: Composting captures and stores carbon in the form of organic matter, which can be a valuable tool in combatting climate change.
Reduced Methane Emissions: When organic matter decays in landfills without air, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Composting, however, is an aerobic process (requiring oxygen) and primarily produces carbon dioxide, which has a lower global warming potential than methane.
Look out for certifications on compostable products. In many regions, a genuine compostable product will have a certification to back its claim. This ensures that it meets the standards of decomposition and non-toxicity. Biodegradable products, however, may lack standardised certifications.
Making Informed Choices
Before buying products labelled as biodegradable or compostable, it’s wise to:
- Research the product and its decomposition requirements.
- Understand local waste management systems – not every region has facilities to compost.
- Opt for certified compostable products when possible.
- Remember that reducing and reusing are still the top methods for sustainable living.
Why Biodegradable Products Shouldn’t be Sent to Composting Facilities
It is essential to recognise that “biodegradable” and “compostable” products are not synonymous and shouldn’t be treated as such. Sending biodegradable products to composting facilities can pose challenges.
Biodegradable products are designed to break down over an unspecified timeframe, which might be longer than the period required for composting materials. This can disrupt the composting process, slowing down the decomposition of genuinely compostable items.
Furthermore, as biodegradable items break down, they may release non-organic compounds or microplastics, contaminating the compost output. Thus, mixing biodegradable products with compostable waste can jeopardise the integrity and quality of the compost produced, rendering it less beneficial or even harmful to the environment.
Waste Wise operates three advanced composting facilities processing over 200,000 tonnes per annum of garden and food waste. We convert this biowaste into of BSI PAS 100 certified compost for use in a range of high-quality organic soil improvers, growing media and top soils. Click here for more information about our composting facilities.