These two concepts seem almost indistinguishable. Both of these terms leave you feeling like you’re helping the planet and reducing your ecological footprint. This confusion surrounding biodegradable vs compostable products can make it difficult to figure out whether to throw used products away in the recycling bin, compost bin or trash can.
Give it to me straight
Biodegradable products deteriorate naturally over time, while compostable items require a specific environment to become compost, but break down more quickly and can often be recycled and reused.
What Does Biodegradable Mean?
We often see the word ‘biodegradable’ on some products that we buy, such as soap and shampoo. But what does it actually mean?
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines biodegradable as anything that degrades from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. Typically, products that are derived from plants, animals, or natural minerals are biodegradable. However, these products will break down at different rates depending on the original material it’s made out of and how much it has been processed.
Biodegradable objects go further than just plants. It can be papers, boxes, bags, and other items that have all been created with the ability to slowly break down until they’re able to be consumed on a microscopic level.
One could argue plastic is biodegradable because it eventually breaks down, but this process can take centuries. On the other hand a banana peel can take months to break down to a microscopic level and be quickly reused in the environment.
Regardless if it takes a month or a millennium, everything we manufacture will ultimately break down and return to the natural elements.
What Does Compostable Mean?
Compostable means that a product is capable of breaking down into natural elements in a compost environment. Unlike many biodegradable materials, compostable products are almost immediately useful to the environment. You can even compost at home.
The ASTM defines compostables as anything that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other compostable materials and leaves no visible, distinguishable, or toxic residue.
So What’s The Difference?
Even after reading the definitions of these two terms, you might still be confused. An easy way to note the difference is while all compostable material is biodegradable, not all biodegradable material is compostable. Although biodegradable materials return to nature they sometimes leave behind metal residue and can take millions of years to fully break down. Compostable materials create something called humus that is full of nutrients and great for plants and do so in a matter of months.
Compostable products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit. When they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants and continuing the circle of life.
So How Can This Help You Be More Of An Eco-Badass?
Even though biodegradable materials will eventually break down, we don’t have millions of years to wait for that to happen, animals are dying, plastic is polluting our planet and ending up in our food. While it may break down on our planet, it is not good to have it flowing through our bodies. Products that are certified compostable are always going to be a better buy than certified biodegradable items.
Note: There is a difference between industrially compostable and home compostable products. If you have a municipal composting system you can put all compostable materials in the compost bin but if you only compost at home, an extra step you have to check is that it’s safe to compost at home. Typically plastics, even plant-based ones will not be safe to compost at home. It sucks that the consumer has to be so educated on these differences if we want to help the planet. Shouldn’t that be the business’s responsibility? It’s all twisted!
Additionally knowing this will help prevent you from falling victim to greenwashing, a term used to describe businesses who convey a false impression or provide misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Don’t be a fool, and see that those eco-friendly makeup remover wipes really aren’t helping our planet.