Breaking Down The Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable

Written by Lea Coté
LEED Green Associate, Master Composter, and Marketing Coordinator at Botanical PaperWorks

Feeling confused about the difference between compostable and biodegradable? Don’t worry, so were we. Our team is on a sustainability journey and we want to learn more and continue to grow and do better for our planet. To help us get clear on the difference between the two and why it matters, I did a deep dive.

Litter and plastic pollution has been around for decades but targeting reduction is still generally a new idea. While the obvious solution is to buy less harmful, fossil fuel-made items, another alternative has emerged – compostables and biodegradable items. While it’s great that we are able to move away from reliance on non-renewables, we also have to know more about them so we can choose items that really do help the Earth and not add problems.

If you’ve ever been curious about compostables or boggled over bioplastics, we hope to clear the air on what these really mean and what to look for. The topic can be confusing so I’ve collected some key points in this infographic and outlined three key takeaways below.

1. Biodegradable and Compostable do NOT mean the same thing

Here’s the thing. Many companies use the term biodegradable or oxo-degradable (which is the same thing as biodegradable but with oxygen present), and they sound great but they don’t really mean anything. Why? Currently, there are no standards for what this term really means and who can use it, so if a product says it’s ‘natural’ or ‘biodegradable’, you may need to look at this further. If the item says it’s a biobased plastic, it is generally chemically identical to fossil-fuel based plastic, but it uses molecules derived from plants, food waste, or lobster shells. Many biodegradable items contain chemical additives that can speed up decomposition, but if this item is a plastic, it just means that it will break down into small microplastics in our environment. Not great.

With compostables, in order for an item to be labelled compostable, it needs to meet two conditions. First, it is made entirely up of organic elements (made from living organisms, like plants). Second, the item can decompose entirely into compost, a soil amendment that can be added to soil to improve texture and add nutrients.

Here at Botanical PaperWorks, we understand this term is confusing and has been used incorrectly in manufacturing, however, our products really do break down to leave no waste in our environment. Therefore, we are happy to say that a great example of a truly biodegradable, compostable item is Botanical PaperWorks’ seed paper. This plantable seed paper is made from post-consumer and post-industrial paper waste, with water-based ink and can be planted under a thin layer of soil in a pot or outdoors in a garden. Not only is it made up of organic elements including pulp from recycled paper (from trees) and seeds (from plants), but because it also completely breaks down in the soil, it also adds a little carbon back from the trees it came from.

2. Compostable items don’t break down properly in our landfills

Items that normally break down with some help from our bacteria and bug friends in a compost pile won’t break down the same if we throw them into a landfill. Plus, throwing out a compostable item defeats its purpose of helping the Earth to begin with.

However, if you don’t have a compost bin at home for your compostables, or a garden to plant the seed paper, and the item does end up in the landfill, the effect is worse than the alternative. You may think it will break down eventually, right? However, when the item is in the landfill, under mounds of other items there, it breaks down without oxygen present (since it’s buried so deep) and it releases methane gas as a result. On average, methane gas is 25x more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so this has a huge effect on our environment.

Ever notice the smell coming from the landfill? That’s methane, meaning there is organic material that shouldn’t be there.

So how can we solve this? First, don’t throw compostables into the landfill. If you have municipal compost pick up where you live, then put organic material in there. If not, find a local community compost bin or garden, set up a bin at home, or tell your local political representative why this is important to you.

*One thing to note: Most of the purchased compostable items, like cutlery, plates, cups, etc., only break down in an industrial bin, so don’t put those items in your backyard bin because they don’t reach high enough temperatures to break down those items.

3. Compostables or bioplastics don’t go in the recycling bin

We already know not to send the compostable item to the landfill, but please also don’t put that item in the recycle bin either. As mentioned, if the item is truly compostable, it will break down quickly, and so adding this to the recycling bin will contaminate the other items, like aluminum, glass, plastic jugs, etc., that don’t break down. If too many wrong items end up in the recycle bin, then items can’t properly be recycled, and that’s not what we want either. Keep compostables in nature and check your local municipality for accepted recyclable items.

Hopefully, you’re not too overwhelmed — just remember to check if the item is compostable. And if so, at the end of its life, put it in a municipal compost bin or, in the case of seed paper, plant it! Remember to keep these items out of your garbage and recycling and you’re on the right path to helping the Earth.

Sources :


CBC Science


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