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Biodegradable or Compostable: What’s the Difference?

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The terms biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably. While there is some overlap, they do not mean the same thing!

All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable.

Biodegradable Vs Compostable

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. Your customers need to know how to properly dispose of your packaging. Being clear that your packaging is compostable creates confidence in your sustainable brand and allows consumers to make smarter purchasing decisions. 

What Does Compostable Mean?

Compostable materials break down completely into their basic parts (water, carbon dioxide, and biomass). They will break down in a timely manner and will not release harmful residue.

Products labeled as compostable must be tested to meet US industrial composting standards ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868. These standards require that compostable products biodegrade within 90 days and leave no harmful residue. Testing includes a seed germination trial, which ensures the compost produced is not harmful to plant life. 

Compostable products add value to the planet's ecosystem by decomposing into nutrient-rich compost. Packaging that is labeled as compostable should be disposed of in a compost bin. 

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

If something is biodegradable it can be broken down by naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. Every material will biodegrade, given enough time (even centuries!). 

Unlike compostable, the term biodegradable is not regulated. There is no time limit for biodegradation, and no testing is done to ensure that the product is free from dangerous toxins. Ideally biodegradable material will break down quickly and safely, however not every product advertised as biodegradable meets these criteria. 

A product labeled as biodegradable without any further context is vague and misleading to consumers. Because this term is so vague, biodegradable products may contaminate compost and should be disposed of in trash collection destined for landfill.

Other Terms 

Degradable

The term degradable defines a broad category of things that are capable of breaking down and disintegrating. There is no standard for how it breaks down, how long it will take, or what it will break down into. 

Oxo-Degradable

The term Oxo-Degradable is simple greenwashing. Oxo-degradable products are conventional plastic mixed with an additive. 

Once disposed of, the plastic becomes brittle and quickly fragments into smaller and smaller pieces. Oxo-degradable products produce harmful microplastics by design! 

Both degradable and oxo-degradable products are not compostable and are not suitable for recycling. They should be disposed of in a landfill.

Which is Better, Compostable or Biodegradable?

Compostable products have undergone strict testing to ensure that they break down within a specific time frame and do not release anything harmful into the environment. Biodegradable products have no such requirements, meaning that they may not be as beneficial as they first appear.

Compostable packaging products will: 

  • Break down within the time needed by the composting environment 
  • Not release harmful residue as they decompose 
  • Create healthy compost that to enrich the soil 

Compostable packaging must adhere to strict standards and has been rigorously tested. Packaging labeled only as biodegradable cannot be composted and must therefore be sent to a landfill.

Composting is Good for Our Planet! It reduces landfill waste and restores nutrients to the soil. Read more about why we should compost:  Why Should I Compost?

*Originally posted