What's the difference between Degradable and Compostable?
Can you spot the difference? You can see two identical bags implying that they’re “eco-friendly”. There is not much that distinguishes them apart from one very important difference. One has been labelled "Degradable" and the other "Compostable".
If you did spot this difference, do you understand it? Many consumers would believe this is the same thing, but it's not.
One can achieve diversion from landfill and work towards a circular economy, while the other breaks down into toxic fragments and is an environmental pollutant... but what about the “Biodegradable” bags?
The problem is semantics, and it is easy to see why. There are many terms used to advertise a product’s sustainability; a highly complex and multidimensional topic difficult to summarise in a single word. As a result, there is often confusion around the real meaning of terms, which leads to misinformed purchases and disposal decisions.
So which product is better for the environment? We’ll clarify the terms.
This is a broad and generic term; something that simply breaks down. That’s it. We can call paper “degradable” as it will degrade in a fire, in water, in the air if left outside and even when stomped upon, regardless of time taken to do so. Most things will degrade over time, including plastic to some degree, at widely varying rates. A plastic that will take 100’s of years to break down can be labelled as “degradable”. The problem with this term is that we cannot infer the time frame nor method of degradation, and it says nothing about what it will degrade in to. The term can encompass physical degradation without any chemical change. It’s a pretty useless term and unfortunately, many products labelled “degradable” are perceived as a guilt-free, eco-friendly choice to the consumer.
This is also a broad term and is something that breaks down naturally; an extension of degrading. Biodegradation must involve break down by living micro-organisms. For example, glass cannot biodegrade but paper can. Organic matter like food scraps is biodegradable as it will break down and rot naturally. We have a bit more information than “degradation”, but time is not a consideration and we cannot infer what it breaks down in to. A plastic product that takes 100 years to break down naturally via micro-organisms can be classified as biodegradable. Equally, a plastic product that takes only a few weeks to break down into smaller toxic fragments existing for years in our environment can also be classified as biodegradable. It is a cheeky doppelganger to look out for on our retail shelves, so we recommend you ensure that you buy “biodegradable and compostable”.
This is a more defined term and goes another step further than biodegrading. Compostable products are designed to turn into nutrient-rich compost, a valuable resource that helps with the growth of next-generation plants. When products are composted there is no “waste” as nutrients are recycled. Fortunately, there are clearly defined performance standards for this term recorded under the International Organization for Standardization (IOS). There are international standards for both home and commercial composting. The main standards are from Europe, the US and Australia.
Most commercial composting standards require a product to
- Fully biodegrade,
- produce non-toxic biomass (compost), and
- biodegrade within 90 days.
Home composting standards requires a product to
- Fully biodegrade,
- produce non-toxic biomass (compost), and
- biodegrade within 180 days.
For these things to be achieved certain conditions are required. Most compostable products need environments such as a high temperature (on average 65°C) and sufficient moisture to achieve biodegradation within 90 days. This is where home composting and commercial composting differ. In a commercial composting facility optimal conditions are maintained, thus products are guaranteed to compost within 90 days to meet international standards. In a home compost bin, conditions vary from household to household and not everyone will be able to maintain heat, therefore the rate of biodegradation will be slower and variable from house to house. This is why we always recommend disposing into commercial composting bins and more specifically, bins that will accept our bioplastic.
Most Ecoware products are certified compostable, meaning they have undergone stringent testing procedures to ensure they meet the requirements of biodegrading completely into non-toxic biomass (compost) within the specified time frame. The two main compost certifications we use are European EN13432 and Australian AS4736.
Can you spot the difference now? The term biodegradable and degradable has been causing much confusion recently, which highlights the importance of certification. There is no certification for biodegradable and degradable products.
Certified compostable packaging is the only practical proven solution that facilitates the diversion of waste from landfill.
Ecoware offers a broad range of food/beverage packaging made from plants able to be composted. The quality of the compost is proven to be unaffected by the added packaging, as EN13432 certification ensures that the resulting compost is completely non-toxic. Even better, certification ensures that plants are not adversely affected by compost containing packaging input.
What can you do as a consumer?
Look for a combination of terms “made from plants, not oil”, “100% sustainably sourced” and “commercially compostable” to ensure you are using a more sustainable packaging option.
Ecoware offers a range of commercially compostable food packaging solutions made from sustainably sourced and certified plant material. Disposal is equally as important, so we work towards a closed loop economy with our customers, where Ecoware packaging made from plants is turned back in to soil via one of our end of life options to help the growth of the next generation of plants. Learn more about our Compost Collect programme here and watch how packaging turns to compost.
A sustainable future involves composting built upon the principles of a circular economy. Our mission is to pioneer this journey, where we hope to see all food and food packaging waste returned to the soil with zero waste systems and sustainable practices – no organic waste to landfill. The industry has come a long way but we still have a long way to go, so we will continue to persevere and work with like-minded individuals and organisations. We will continue to be transparent and honest in educating and encouraging positive social change and the adoption of compostable packaging. We will continue to lead by example and demonstrate how compostable packaging can work in New Zealand. Armed with the knowledge that with collective effort, progress is made, we hope that people will continue to learn how to spot the difference between authentic and misleading products.
We can all make a difference and start to work towards a better, greener future. If you have any questions regarding the sustainability of Ecoware products, please get in touch – we are ready to help.