In the world today, many companies made attempts to become more eco-friendly by rethinking their products in terms of composition and raw materials. Therefore, you will most likely see many items in the grocery store and in the hardware store labeled as either “biodegradable” or “compostable” depending on the product.
However, that’s where people get confused: what is the difference between biodegradable and compostable? Do they both help the environment equally or is one process greater than the other? To help you understand better how these processes are made, we wrote this informative article, which will cover the difference between having a compostable and biodegradable material.
What is a Biodegradable Material?
A biodegradable material is anything that will break down eventually with the passing time. For any raw material or product to be completely biodegradable, it should break down on its own without the need for special processes, such as heating or putting it inside some machine. This means that when you throw it into a landfill, it will decompose naturally.
Most biodegradable products have about 1 year before they completely decompose. This length of time depends on the composition of the product and how natural it is – the more natural ingredients or materials it has, the shorter the decomposition period will be.
Their distinction from non-biodegradable products, such as many traditionally-made plastics, is that they will break down faster and almost quickly. Certain plastics are not that biodegradable since they will need years or decades to decompose – some may even remain forever.
Benefits of Biodegradable Materials
Among the benefits of using a biodegradable material include the following:
- Less dumpsite space is consumed
- Most of them come from renewable sources (e.g. plants)
- Such renewable and organic sources cause less toxicity to the environment
Examples of Biodegradable Materials
Here are the most common examples of biodegradable materials that you’ll find around you:
1. Garden waste
This includes leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, rotten fruits, stems from plants, branches, rotten vegetables, and the like. Also included here are chopped pieces of wood.
2. Food waste
Most food waste is biodegradable since they go into the digestive system. Examples of food waste include rotten or spoiled fruits, vegetables, meat, and the like. It also includes peels from fruits or the stems of a leafy vegetable.
3. Organic waste
This includes human waste, as well as livestock waste, which is also often used as compost or fertilizer (see below).
4. Biodegradable Plastics and Materials
With the new technology today, we now have plastics that are biodegradable so that they break down in a dumpsite much faster than traditionally-made plastics. This caused a revolutionary change in businesses, especially since most people still need plastic for convenience but don’t want its bad effects on the environment.
5. Plant-based Materials
The number one example would be paper and newspaper, which is why you’ll see grocery bags using such material instead of plastic bags. One way to help the environment and the dumpsite to lessen the use of plastic is to consider paper and other plant-based materials.
If your shirt or clothes are made with plant-based or natural materials, they are also considered biodegradable. Therefore, if you want to help the environment, consider lessening your purchase of non-biodegradable fabric and textiles.
What is a Compostable Material?
Compostable materials also break down into the soil, much like biodegradable waste, but the catch is that they need special conditions. For instance, they need a composting bin and need to be kept inside it for a certain period.
Aside from that, they may also require a certain temperature to melt or break down depending on the composition of the material. Compostable materials will most likely need an industrial composting facility but if you have the necessary composting equipment at home, you can also work on them.
With that said, compared to a biodegradable material, a compostable material won’t break down as fast as biodegradable waste when you toss it into a landfill. They are also eco-friendly but you do have to spend time and money to make them merge with the solid ground, unlike with biodegradable waste.
So, how can a compostable material help the environment? When entered into the proper composting facility such compostable waste will have the following benefits to Mother Nature:
- The quality of soil in your area is improved
- Helps the plants get better nutrients
- Save money on commercial fertilizers
- Keeps pests away from your plants
- Helps the soil hold more water
- Balances the pH levels of the soil
Examples of Compostable Materials
A few examples of compostable materials include the following:
1. Organic compost
This includes used paper, spoiled food, paper towels, dried plants, eggshells, meat/fish bones, and various other plant-based materials. Organic compost is usually biodegradable so they’re okay to be used in a backyard-scale composting project since they deteriorate easily.
2. Paper-based products
This may include certain tea bags, coffee filters, cardboard boxes, paper bags, and the like. Since they are mostly plant-based products, they will degrade easily into the soil.
3. Compostable-labeled products
Certain plastic products and other materials today have been made to be compostable when entered into the proper facility. Examples of such products include eco-friendly straws, disposable utensils, food containers, and the like. They cannot be composted in your backyard so they need to be taken to a local (municipal/city) landfill or composting site.
Differences between Biodegradable and Compostable Materials
So how do biodegradable and compostable materials differ from each other? Here are key points:
1. Processing time
Compostable products do not degrade over time quickly without the help of special facilities. Biodegradable materials, on the other hand, easily break down. Simply put, biodegradable products will deteriorate faster than compostable products should they be put into a landfill together.
However, with that said, a biodegradable material has no specific time as to when it will break down since it depends on the composition of the product. Compostable products enter a specific facility so it is easy to know when they will break down – usually around 180 days.
2. Processing method
Processing a compostable product is a requirement to make it degrade. For instance, they need a certain temperature, moisture levels, and various other factors to cause them to deteriorate faster.
Unlike compostable products, biodegradable products do not need special conditions like these, hence they have “bio” in the name. This means that they naturally degrade with the environment.
3. Result of the process
Biodegradable materials, when degraded, will be converted into biomass and water vapor. On the other hand, the controlled process of a compostable material will convert it into a rich soil supplement or humus.
You’ll need funds to establish a facility that properly composts the material if you have compostable products at hand. On the flip side, a biodegradable product doesn’t need a lot of cost and effort if you are going to compost it in your backyard.
However, there are exceptions to this. When comparing biodegradable plastic versus compostable plastic, biodegradable plastics are a different story. They are not normally sent to composting sites and are marketed to break down on their own in the dumpsite. The problem is that whether or not these biodegradable plastics truly degrade on their own is still a bit questionable, especially that if they do break down, they still leave behind smaller pieces.
Biodegradable vs. Compostable: Which is Better?
Generally, biodegradable is better than compostable materials but it depends on what type of material we are talking about. Biodegradable organic matter, such as dried fruits and grass clippings, as well as recycled paper, surely are better than simply compostable items.
On the other hand, if you are comparing a biodegradable vs. compostable man-made product, such as plastic materials, that’s where the line is drawn. Biodegradable plastic has no known standards on how long it will take before it breaks down in the wilderness whereas compostable products have specific timeframes for that.
With that said, biodegradable products do not need controlled processes to make them break down since they can do it on their own. On the other hand, compostable products require an additional cost and human effort to make them compostable and become soil-enriching material.
To conclude, both biodegradable and compostable products are beneficial to the environment. They both help lessen the dumpsite space that we consume, leading to much healthier living spaces and more land reserved for planting crops and raising animals.
When items degrade into the environment, we have fewer garbage problems, resulting in less likelihood of sewage blocking and this leads to less likelihood of flooding. Less garbage in the environment also means a better ecosystem for our animals in the wild.
If we can do our part and become responsible when shopping for products, we can help the environment – always look for the labels and take note of the differences between biodegradable and compostable. In this way, you’ll know what you are throwing away or putting into your backyard compost bin.