Ever picked up an item at the store with a "compostable" or "biodegradable" sign in it but weren't sure what it exactly meant? We're here to break it down for you in this article. Find out their definitions and basic difference to help you in your sustainable journey.
Let's start with the basics. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, composting is the act of collecting and storing plant material so it can decay and be added to soil to improve its quality. These are the organic waste or organic materials we accumulate in our surroundings such as wood chips, grass clippings to food scraps. Once collected, these organic materials are what makes a compost.
Composting requires the presence of air to successfully decompose the organic material into humus-like material, known as a compost. The compost then breaks down into natural elements that fertilize and nourishes the soil. This process has been used for centuries and is a great, natural fertilizer to farms, gardens, agriculture, and the like. This process can be done in a home compost bin or an industrial composting facility.
Recently, more compostable products are becoming available in the market today. They are made from compostable materials more commonly known as compostable plastic such as PBAT and PLA that could be added to a compost. It is a great sustainable alternative material to traditional plastic. Compostable items range from compostable bags, coffee cups, kitchenware to packaging products. Since they are compostable, they can go through a composting process in a home compost bin or a composting facility and mostly do not end in landfills. In that sense, it is convenient waste management because you can see it break down before your eyes, unlike plastic bags that take years to disintegrate.
How to Compost
If you're new to the concept of composting, you'll be happy to know that it is quite easy to do. Composting is something everyone can do that even children can get engage in it! But first, you must know that nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and water are the four ingredients that are required to compost effectively. With that said, we begin the first step of composting by gathering such materials: Brown Materials - dead leaves, plants, shredded cardboard, saw, wood chips, and sawdust
Green Materials - grass clippings, food scraps, kitchen waste
Brown materials are materials high in carbon while green materials are high in nitrogen. Once these materials are gathered, the next step is to prepare your compost bin where you will place all these materials, creating what we call a compost pile. Using a 3:1 ratio, you must then put brown materials first and eventually add green materials. Next, add the right amount of water to help and maintain anaerobic digestion. After putting it all together, turn the compost bin from time to time to aerate it. This process allows the air to break down the compost pile faster. Yup, it's that easy! However, not all organic waste can be placed in a compost bin. Here are some of the materials that should not be composted according to the United Stated Environmental Protection Agency:
Black walnut tree leaves or twigs - Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
Coal or charcoal ash - Might contain substances harmful to plants
Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs* - Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
Diseased or insect-ridden plants - Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants
Fats, grease, lard, or oils* - Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
Meat or fish bones and scraps* - Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)* - Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans
Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides - Might kill beneficial composting organisms* Check with your local composting or recycling coordinator to see if these organics are accepted by your community curbside or drop-off composting program.
Now let's discuss the term, biodegradable. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, biodegradable means "capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms)." Now this is just confusing, isn't it? It seems like it is the exact same definition of compostable. But we're here to clarify and make it simple for you.
Biodegradable materials break down through natural process while compostable materials need human intervention
Biodegradation of biodegradable materials is a naturally occurring process that doesn't require human intervention. Through time, a biodegradable product will degrade back into its simple components such as biomass, carbon dioxide, and water. The material breaks down and degrades in the environment. Food scraps and other organic waste can degrade within a few days but biodegradable products or biodegradable plastics take a few years to 500 years (for plastic bags), depending on their components.
Compostable materials, on the hand, does need human intervention since it needs specific conditions to compost. What is great about compostable materials is that it breaks down and degrades in the environment faster from only a few months to a year and is even beneficial to the soil.
Compostable materials are beneficial to the soil while biodegradable materials sometimes leave toxic waste
While biodegradable materials such as biodegradable plastic are great alternatives to traditional plastic materials, recent studies found that some biodegradable products still leave toxic waste behind called microplastics. They do, however, break down and degrade into the environment faster than traditional plastic.
Compostable materials, in turn, degrades into humus-like material that's beneficial to the soil which assists plants in strengthening their immune system. Only organic elements degrade in the environment and do not leave toxic waste.
Paying attention to Sustainable Packaging
Online packaging waste is bigger than ever with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Online shopping accelerated at full speed due to the lockdowns, consumers turning to online shopping to purchase items they need. The good news is, we could do something about it by choosing better alternatives to lower down packaging waste. If we look at the market today, we can see that there are biodegradable packaging and compostable packaging.
As discussed earlier, biodegradable items can break down with the help of microorganisms but sometimes, they are made from degradable plastic that just disintegrates into tinier versions of microplastics that create toxic waste. However, biodegradable packaging that is made from biodegradable material is still worth looking into than sticking to traditional plastic packaging.
Compostable packaging, on the other hand, not only is a feasible, sustainable swap to traditional plastic packaging, it nourishes the soil once it breaks down. Consumers just need to make sure that the compostable packaging they are using is 100% truthfully compostable and is certified by accrediting bodies.
Fortunately we offer compostable products which you can find in our store here!
Oxo-biodegradable: What is that?
A lot of products we see in the market today have an "oxo-biodegradable" or also known as d2w biodegradable label on them and we're here to clarify that no, it does not biodegrade or compost into the environment. According to an article by resource.co, "‘Oxo-biodegradable’ plastics are a form of plastic that its proponents claim biodegrades significantly faster in the presence of oxygen than conventional plastics, turning into the supposedly harmless biodegradable matter over a few months to a few years." They are made from transition metals such as cobalt, manganese, iron, etc., and additives such as Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), and sometimes also Polyvinylchloride (PVC).
Much like traditional plastic, they break down into microplastics that may cause further pollution. It may break down into microplastics that do not visually pollute the environment, but the truth is, it still does and can even sometimes be found on the food we eat.
It's about the soil.
At the end of the day, it's about having healthy soil. We need healthy soil to grow food to survive and other organisms depend on it too. Switching to a sustainable swap is a step to a better, healthier environment but the added benefit of being able to nurture the soil is something to be greatly considered when deciphering biodegradable and compostable.
We hope this article helped in clarifying the terms and their differences. This article was written not to discourage the use of one or the other, but to educate and encourage making informed choices to help you in your sustainable living journey.
We also talked more about compostable packaging in this article here!