Compostable vs Biodegradable: What the difference?

Compostable and biodegradable are both terms that refer to the way that products break down and decompose, but there are important distinctions between them.

One of the most important distinctions is that all compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable.

But what makes a product compostable and the other biodegradable? How can a product be both? 

Let’s explore their differences, their benefits, and how to choose the right option for your circumstances.

Compostable vs Biodegradable

Compostable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. 

Understanding the difference between the terms is important for making informed choices about the products we use and how we dispose of them.

takeout container with compostable and biodegradable logos

What makes something compostable?

Compostable refers to materials that can decompose into natural, non-toxic substances in a compost pile. They are broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass, without leaving toxic residue or causing any harm to the environment.

Compostable materials are typically organic matter, such as food waste, yard waste, or plant-based materials. Composting recycles and reuses waste. After these materials break down, they can be used as nutrient-rich soil to enhance gardens or agricultural land. Carbon then returns to the earth, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

These materials are also biodegradable, meaning they can break down into simpler substances over time. However, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. Compostable materials must meet specific standards to ensure that they break down completely and do not leave harmful residues behind.

For example, compostable materials must degrade within a certain timeframe and under specific conditions. The exact timeframe and conditions can vary depending on the specific certification standards, but typically, compostable materials should break down within around 90 days in a commercial composting facility. They should also reach a temperature of at least 140°F during the composting process to ensure that any harmful bacteria or pathogens are destroyed.

As well, compostable materials should not release any harmful greenhouse gases during the composting process. Instead, they should produce nutrient-rich soil that can be used to fertilize plants and crops.

Composting doesn’t always require commercial facilities and can be done at home. But consumers must be vigilant about what can and cannot be composted. Some products, while labeled as compostable, actually require commercial facilities for proper composting.

Learn More: Composting versus Recycling: Which is better?

chopped vegetables in front of a compost bin

What makes something biodegradable?

Biodegradable refers to materials that microorganisms, like bacteria, fungi, and algae, can naturally break down into smaller compounds like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass under the right conditions. It typically occurs through the process of enzymatic hydrolysis, where enzymes break down complex molecules into smaller components that can be consumed by microorganisms.

Unlike compostable materials, biodegradable materials do not have specific certification standards or timeframes for breaking down. However, it is important to note that not all biodegradable materials break down equally or at the same rate. The rate of biodegradation depends on various factors, such as the type of material, the environment it’s in, and the presence of microorganisms.

Common biodegradable materials include natural fibres, like cotton, wool, and silk, and certain types of plastics, like polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from cornstarch.

It’s important to remember that not all biodegradable products are created equal, especially when it comes to plastics. Some biodegradable plastics require very specific conditions to break down, such as high temperatures or exposure to ultraviolet light. If these materials are not disposed of properly, they may not biodegrade or release harmful byproducts into the environment.

The environmental impact of biodegradable products only lessens if they’re disposed of properly. This usually requires commercial facilities that regulate temperature, moisture, and oxygen levels.

Learn More: 4 Reasons Bioplastics Won’t Solve Our Plastic Problem

The difference between compostable and biodegradable

While compostable and biodegradable are terms that are used interchangeably, there are many key differences between them.

Turns into nutrient-rich soilTurns into simpler substances
Must meet specific standards for biodegradability, time frame, and absence of harmful chemicalsDoes not have specific standards or criteria
Requires specific conditionsDoes not require specific conditions unless made of plastic
Can take place in commercial facilities and home compost systemsMust be disposed of properly or it can release harmful substances into the environment
All compostable materials are biodegradableNot all biodegradable materials are compostable
Does not release harmful substances throughout the composting process*Can release harmful substances during degradation process
All compostable materials are biodegradableNot all biodegradable materials are compostable

*If properly composted in a home compost or facility. Compostable materials, like all waste, can release methane gas if left to decompose in a landfill.

Hands cupping soil, compostable and biodegradable

Is one better than the other?

When it comes to compostable and biodegradable materials, it’s not necessarily a matter of one being better than the other. Rather, it’s about choosing the right option based on your specific needs and circumstances.

Compostable materials are ideal for those who have access to composting facilities or home composting systems. When compostable materials are properly disposed of, they can help to reduce waste, improve soil quality, and support sustainable agriculture. However, if compostable materials are not disposed of properly, they may release methane gas as they decompose.

Biodegradable materials may be a better choice for those without access to composting facilities or home composting systems. Biodegradable materials can break down through natural processes and, depending on the product, may not need specific conditions to degrade. However, not all biodegradable materials are created equal; some may not break down completely without proper conditions.

pile of colourful vegetables and produce

The benefits of compostable and biodegradable

Compostable and biodegradable products offer a range of benefits for both our health and the environment.

Compostable products can help to reduce waste and support sustainable agriculture. The nutrient-rich soil that composting produces can be used to fertilize plants and crops. This can help to reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and improve soil quality, leading to healthier and more sustainable food production.

Biodegradable products can also help reduce waste and minimize harm to the environment. When biodegradable materials break down through natural processes, they can reduce the amount of waste in landfills or polluting the environment. This helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote a cleaner, healthier environment.

Overall, both compostable and biodegradable products offer a range of benefits. By choosing these types of products and disposing of them properly, we can help to reduce waste, support sustainable agriculture, and promote a cleaner, healthier planet.

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