Biodegradable & Compostable – What’s the Difference?

If you’re confused by the recent influx of newly labelled “green” to-go & packaging products, you’re not alone.

Whether it’s due to government mandates, brand management savvy or a general desire to be a more eco-friendly company, we are seeing tons of new options enter the marketplace.

Unfortunately, education is lagging the execution on this one, so we thought you might enjoy some behind the scenes detail on what the difference is. 

First off, many products being marketed as biodegradable or compostable may or may not be a better alternative for the environment. It really depends on what it is and where it ends up being disposed of. 

Second, if you remember nothing else, take this in. Everything compostable is biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable.  Read that again.

Confused? Let’s break it down (literally).

Biodegradable

The official Merriam definition of biodegradable is “a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.” Basically, this means that given the right conditions & the presence of microorganisms, the substance would completely break down into its basic elements and blend back into the earth. 

When used on a to-go product or packaging, this should indicate that the product will break down in a landfill environment within a year or less. However, there is very little oversight into this testing of this process.

The benefit to products being labelled biodegradable is that, in theory, it would create more room in our current landfills. Unfortunately, it is difficult for microorganisms to thrive in a landfill due to lack of oxygen and water, so it’s unsure how realistic this hope is.

Biodegradable is also a common term, and casts a wide net. Technically, almost everything on the planet is biodegradable and will break down over time. Well, everything except plastic.

Plastic takes roughly 450 years to break down, but it’s also been confirmed that it doesn’t go away, just turns into microplastics, which are now being found everywhere. (Sorry, post for another time. But seriously, let’s ditch the plastic). 

Now, onto….

Compostable

Compostable products generally mean they are compostable in an industrial composting facility. Be very cautious introducing any of these compostable products into your backyard composting system, unless it specifies that it is safe for backyard home composting. 

The reason products need commercial facilities is that commercial systems have larger piles that maintain higher temperatures (around 140 degrees) over a consistent period of time, normally 10 days. This allows them to completely break down materials that would otherwise be difficult to compost, like an avocado seed or compostable kitchenware made with corn starch. 

If you are spending extra money to purchase compostable options, make sure they end up being composted. This goes for individuals and businesses. Compostable products that end up in a landfill will not be in the environment they were designed for, which means they will decompose anaerobically and emit methane, just like other organics, if they can break down at all.  To complete the circle, these materials must find their way to a composting facility.  

The best compostable products in the US will be certified by the BPI – which is, ironically, the Biodegradable Products Institute. These products undergo rigorous testing and are generally good at most commercial facilities. 

So what have we learned today? Everything compostable is biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable. 

Did you get all that? Very good! You have “star student written” all over you. 

If you’re still here but still confused and maybe a little annoyed, here is our simplest advice. Choose wisely. Buy reusable when possible, as it’s hard to know where your waste ends up. 

We know you got this.

Can’t get enough of B vs. C info? Check out our short video here:

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