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Biodegradable vs Compostable

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There is a significant difference between the terms 'compostable' and 'biodegradable'. This difference is significant enough to impact your brand image, so making the correct choice can be crucial!

Made from plant materials, compostable products break down into non-toxic components during the composting process. Other degradable products break down into harmful chemicals or smaller fragments that could harm the environment.

Greenwashing takes advantage of marketing buzzwords and allows consumers to make false assumptions regarding how beneficial the products are for the environment. This leads to confusion regarding the meaning of different key terms such as: degradable, oxo-degradable, biodegradable, and compostable. 


Degradable

The term “degradable” defines a broader category of products that, when exposed to sunlight and heat, will break down and disintegrate over time. That being said, almost anything will degrade given enough time!

Even if something is degradable, it might not be beneficial to the environment. Harmful microplastics can be created as degradable (but non-compostable) plastics break down into thousands of tiny fragments.


Biodegradable

Biodegradable products are anything that undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. So something is considered biodegradable when living things can break it down.

The prefix “bio” makes this term seem very eco-friendly, however just because nature breaks these products down does not mean the results are any better for the environment. It is very important to specify the environment where biodegradation is intended to take place.


Oxo-degradable

Oxo-degradable plastics contain polyethylene and additives (including iron, nickel, and cobalt). Once disposed, these plastics undergo oxidative degradation, a process which requires oxygen, ultraviolet light, and heat to complete.

The plastic then becomes brittle, causing it to easily fragment. The microplastics created by this process are incredibly harmful to the environment.

Oxo-degradable products are harmful to the environment. They are not compostable and are not suitable for recycling with mainstream plastics, so they must be thrown away into a general waste bin.


Compostable

The American Society for Testing and Materials defines compostables as anything that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other compostable materials. It must leave no visible, distinguishable, or toxic residue. Compostable products, after their degradation process, will leave behind humus, which is full of nutrients and nourishes plants and soil.

To go through a composting process, organic waste requires the proper levels of heat, water, and oxygen. Compostable products have a positive impact on the environment, but compostable waste must be sent to a compost facility to ensure proper waste management.


How to choose the right eco-friendly packaging for your product

When purchasing packaging, it is important to consider which end-of-life option is best for your customers. If you've made the choice to use compostable packaging it is important to check for compostability certification! Until 2002, there were no specifications or tests to legally prove compostability, allowing confusion and skepticism to exist for decades. 

All certified compostable products meet the ASTM D6400 and/or D6868 standards, to be sure if a product is truly compostable you can ask to see certification.

compostable packaging

Some manufacturers, who are unable to meet the standards of these specifications will reference the ASTM 6954 or the ISO 14855 to say they have met some standard for biodegradation. Don’t let them fool you: both of these are just standard procedures to be followed for conducting tests and have no requirements for passing based on heavy metal content or disintegration ability.

Terms such as biodegradable and compostable are not interchangeable, and it is crucial that both types of products are not sent to the same waste management facilities. 

The best way to ensure the most positive possible effect on the environment is to choose authentic, certified compostable packaging for your eco-friendly products. 

To find the right compostable packaging and labels for your eco-friendly brand, our customer service reps are ready to help! Contact us.

Further Reading:

Why Holistic Compostable Packaging Matters

Why Choose Eco-Friendly Packaging

Help your Sustainable Brand Stand Out from the Crowd