Biodegradable and Compostable are 2 terms that are tossed around a lot regarding green products. They mean very different things and can require very different ways of disposal. We would all like to make our homes a little better for the environment and leave a little less behind in landfills. Biodegradeable vs compostable products, which one is better for the environment? How do I properly dispose of these green products so they aren’t polluting landfills or the outdoors for years? Let’s discuss the differences below and how we can make be a little better for our planet.
Biodegradable vs Compostable. What is the difference.
Biodegradable means that a substance will break down by biological processes. Algae, bacteria or other natural forces will cause it to breakdown into its natural components. It can still leave behind metals or other byproduct materials. It doesn’t specify time so some items are biodegradable but may take hundreds of years for the process to complete. Usually, if something is labeled as biodegradable it will break down in a relatively short time span of days to months, not years.
Compostable means that a substance is made of organic matter that can be broken down back into organic matter that can be reused as soil. Many substances require specific conditions for composting to occur. Something may be compostable but not compostable in your backyard compost pile. Many compostable items require the conditions present in an industrial composting facility to break down. They won’t break down in your home compost pile or in a landfill.
The below video talks about biodegradable vs compostable plastics and what are the differences.
Compostable Product Certifications
There are few certifications for compostable materials. Substances certified to these substances will break down at an industrial compost facility at a similar rate to other substances at the industrial composting facility.
- ASTM – American Society for Testing and Materials – Standard D6400
- EN – European Standards EN 13432
- TUV Austria – OK Biobased
This specification covers plastics and products made from plastics that are designed to be composted in municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities. The properties in this specification are those required to determine if plastics and products made from plastics will compost satisfactorily, including biodegrading at a rate comparable to known compostable materials. The purpose of this specification is to establish standards for identifying products and materials that will compost satisfactorily in commercial and municipal composting facilities.https://www.astm.org/Standards/D6400.htm
Packaging. Requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation. Test scheme and evaluation criteria for the final acceptance of packaginghttps://www.en-standard.eu/
As a result of the increased environmental awareness among customers, there is a growing market for products on a basis of renewable raw materials. And that environmentally conscious motivation on the part of customers is exactly the reason why there is a need for an independent, high-quality guarantee of the renewability of raw materials. The “OK biobased” certification meets that need perfectly.
In contrast to LCA (Life Cycle Assessment), the investigation method behind the OK biobased certification is very simple and the exact value can be precisely and scientifically measured and calculated. This renders checks and re-checks very transparent and also allows “apples to be compared with apples” with the greatest ease.
On a basis of the determined percentage of renewable raw materials (% Bio-based), your product can be certified as one-star-bio-based, two-star-bio-based, three-star-bio-based or four-star-bio-based.http://www.tuv-at.be/green-marks/certifications/ok-biobased/
OK Bio Based certified materials must meet the 2 following requirements.
- the total carbon content of the product is at least 30%
- the carbon content of a renewable raw material (biobased) is at least 20 %.
Based on the percentage of renewable raw materials (% Bio-based) in the product, it is given a star rating between 1 and 4.
The US Food and Drug Administration sets guidelines for materials that are safe for food contact. Materials that are considered food safe can’t leak any toxic substance into the food during normal usage conditions.
There are a few agencies that certify companies are meeting the standards for industrial composting.
Biodegradable and Compostable Materials
Some common materials used for creating biodegradable products are below.
Wood is straight forward. Woods such as birch and areca palm are used to produce biodegradable and compostable products. These are natural with minimal or no chemical processing they will biodegrade and compost in your backyard pile or at a landfill or industrial facility.
PLA – polylactic acid is a bioplastic typically made from cornstarch fibers. PLA requires an industrial composting facility to break down. It will not biodegrade in your home composting pile. Very few towns and places currently have access to an industrial composting facility to dispose of PLA properly.
If disposed of in a landfill without the correct composting conditions, PLA will break down into methane which is a much more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide. PLA is made from cornstarch so it also involves using what was traditionally a food stock substance now as a plastic replacement. PLA is an improvement over traditional plastic from a renewable resource standpoint. It is only better if it is disposed of properly in an industrial composting facility. For more information on PLA see here.
PSM – Plastarch Material is another cornstarch based bioplastic. PSM is biodegradable in compost, wet soil, freshwater, and seawater. PSM is easier to breakdown than PLA and can be composted at home as opposed to only at industrial composting facilities. More info can be found here.
Bagasse is a byproduct leftover after sugarcane is processed. It does not use a food resource since it is using only a leftover byproduct. Most bagasse products require an industrial composting facility to dispose of although it will biodegrade eventually at a home facility over a year or 2. Still better then 500 years for plastic. More info can be found here.
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About the author
My name is Doug Ryan. I am a homeowner and love having get togethers and finding the best things to make spending time at home easier and more fun. We spend a lot of time at home so why shouldn’t we have a great time there? I decided to start Great Home Gear as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for all things home living with everyone.