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What's The Difference Between Biodegradable And Compostable?
10th June 2020
By: Olivia - F&F
BIODEGRADABLE VS COMPOSTABLE
Here at Flora & Fauna, one of the questions that we get asked the most is…
“What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable?”
We hear you! It can be tricky to work out the difference between the two – especially with confusing labels and the rise of ‘greenwashing’ tactics. Some companies even use them interchangeably, which leads the consumer to believe that they are the same thing.
There’s actually a difference between a biodegradable product and a compostable product. But, to put it simply – whether an item is compostable or biodegradable, it must be placed in an environment that facilitates its breakdown.
While all compostable material is biodegradable, not all biodegradable material is compostable.
Let’s explore this further!
The word “bio-degradable” means “susceptible to decomposition by living organisms” (like bacteria and fungi) and consists of three words: “bio“, “degrade” and “able“.
Plant-based, animal-based or natural mineral-based products are usually biodegradable. Biodegradable products, given the right conditions, will break down and disintegrate back into the Earth. This process may take months or years – depending on the product. Biodegradable items such as paper, food scraps and untreated wood will break down relatively quickly. Some products, such as steel, will eventually rust and disintegrate back into the Earth. Lots and lots of products are biodegradable so the term is used very frequently and used to confuse and greenwash in some cases.
It’s really important to consider where the product is breaking down, too. There’s a big difference between throwing an apple core or banana peel into your backyard – as opposed to a landfill. Products that will biodegrade in nature may not biodegrade properly in landfills, where there's not enough bacteria, light, and water to move the process along.
PROS: Biodegradable products are able to break down and disintegrate back into the Earth, unlike non-biodegradable products such as plastic.
CONS: While biodegradable products inevitably return to nature, some highly processed biodegradable products may leave behind toxic residue.
Note: biodegradable and degradable are not the same thing. Degradable means living things are required to break it down. eg plastic that breaks down into microplastics.
Compostable products break down quite quickly in a compostable environment and leave behind a nutrient-rich organic material called humus, which creates a healthy soil environment for new plant growth!
Most compost bins require a layering process to achieve the perfect environment for breaking down materials. It’s usually a mix of ‘brown’ (dead leaves, paper, twigs) and ‘green’ (garden clippings, kitchen scraps) layers. It needs to be moist, but not too wet. The compost bin must be covered (to retain heat and moisture) and aerated every week or two. Within a couple of months (depending on the size of the compost bin) you’ll have a bunch of ‘black gold’ soil that can be used in your garden! Composting is a great example of a closed-loop system – because there is absolutely no waste at the end of the process.
PROS: Compostable products are great for the environment; they take less time to break down and don’t leave behind any toxic residue (as opposed to some biodegradable options) and can provide the Earth with nutrients once they are fully broken down. Compostable products can be composted in your own backyard, or in a handy Urban Composter!
CONS: Composting can be a little bit time-consuming, and it can be tricky to achieve the perfect environment for the materials to break down properly.