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Biodegradable vs. Compostable: What's the Difference?

Posted on 8/11/2022

in Eco-Friendly Materials

composting in soil

Purchasing biodegradable and compostable products is a great start if you want to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Did you know that the terms biodegradable and compostable have very distinct meanings? Don’t worry; most people don’t.

Biodegradable and compostable products are great eco-conscious alternatives, but there are differences between the two. There are plenty of eco-friendly options for traditional disposable products, and knowing what they each mean will help you determine the best choice for your home or business.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

In simple terms, if something is characterized as biodegradable, it naturally disintegrates and assimilates into the environment over time with the help of microorganisms. The product decomposes into simple elements like biomass, water, and carbon dioxide during the degradation process. Oxygen is not required, but it speeds up the breakdown of the molecular level. 

Not every biodegradable product breaks down at the same rate. Depending on the chemical makeup of an item, the process in which it assimilates back into the earth varies. For example, vegetables can take anywhere from 5 days to a month to disintegrate, while tree leaves can take up to a year. 

What Makes Something Compostable?

Composting is a form of biodegradability that only occurs under the proper conditions. Human intervention is usually necessary in order to facilitate decomposition because it requires specific temperatures, microbial levels, and environments for aerobic respiration. Heat, humidity, and microorganisms work together to break materials into water, carbon dioxide, biomass, and other inorganic materials, resulting in nutrient-dense organic waste. 

Composting occurs in large-scale commercial facilities, compost bins, and piles. People can use compost to enrich the soil while reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and waste. Plus, it helps prevent soil erosion. If you are interested in composting, we can help you find a composting facility near you. 

So what’s the difference between compostable and biodegradable products? All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable.  Biodegradable products break down naturally when adequately disposed of, while the decomposition of compostable products requires more specific criteria and usually has a defined amount of time they will take to assimilate into the environment. If a product is BPI® Certified, it will only decompose under certain environmental conditions.

Biodegradable Materials

Biodegradable products can be made from eco-friendly materials like PLA. Polylactic acid, commonly known as PLA, is a bioresin typically made from plant-based starches such as corn. It uses 65% less energy to produce than conventional oil-based plastics while generating 68% fewer greenhouse gasses and containing no toxins. 

Sugarcane bagasse is also a popular alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastics. It is a byproduct created during the sugarcane juice extraction process. Bagasse products are biodegradable, taking around 30-60 days to decompose. 

Are Compostable Products Right For Me?

Compostable products are tested to meet the ASTM 6400 or 6868 standards for commercial composting. They are intended for disposal in commercial composting facilities and will not break down in a landfill or other environments. Commercial composting is not available in all areas, and different states have different requirements for composting. Please check locally to ensure you have access to commercial composting before purchasing compostable products.

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