What's the difference between Degradable and Compostable?
Degradable versus 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, 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.
What is degradable, and examples?
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 the 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 hundreds of years to break down can be labelled as “degradable”. The problem with this term is that we cannot infer the time frame or method of degradation, and it says nothing about what it will degrade into. 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 by the consumer.
What does biodegradable mean?
This is also a broad term and is something that breaks down naturally; an extension of degrading. Biodegradation must involve the breakdown by living microorganisms. 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 more information than “degradation”, but time is not a consideration, and we cannot infer what it breaks down into.
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”.
What are compostable products?
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
— produce non-toxic biomass (compost), and
— biodegrade within 90 days.
Home composting standards require a product to
— 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 of 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, highlighting 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.
Are you a business owner? Or are you responsible for procurement?
In Aotearoa, there is no established trade association for compostable packaging, while elsewhere, such organisations have been created in part to eliminate fake compostables and biodegradable products and allow for easy identification of compostable packaging in organic waste streams. When deciding on a packaging provider, check that those products are certified. Only bio-based material solutions are compatible with a circular economy, like materials derived from agriculture or food waste.
Certified compostables are designed to decompose with food waste, removing mechanical requirements of separation and representing a fit-for-purpose replacement for fossil fuel-based plastics. EN13432 certified compostable packaging has a 0% contamination allowance—and the resulting compost is proven unaffected by the added packaging.
And while our products are made from plants rather than fossil fuels—and thus, have a lower carbon footprint—it remains vital to consider the impacts of our raw materials and the connections these materials have to the planet's health. We strive, wherever possible, to reduce the impact of our organisation which is why Ecoware also holds the FSC® Chain of Custody (COC) Certification (FSC-C142978). Here we discuss our commitment to reducing the impact of our organisation and why we need to do more to protect the lungs of Mother Earth.
To learn more about FSC®Certified companies, materials and products, you can access the Global FSC®Certificate Database and Product Classification tool.
Join us in creating the future of the takeaways
You know it’s time to abolish plastic—or at least reduce the use of plastics. In a time of transition to a net-zero economy, the demand for sustainable strategy is growing, and your packaging choices contribute to, accelerate and inspire the needed shift towards a circular economy.
Takeaways are not going anywhere but what remains clear is that we have suitable low-impact materials—that we can keep oil in the ground, and that we should do a better job of recovering these materials—preventing them from entering our fragile ecosystems. With over 500 SKUs. We offer packaging alternatives to all existing single-use disposable plastics and a full-circle recovery service—Compost Collect.
VIEW OUR COMPOSTABLE PACKAGING
LOCATE YOUR LOCAL COMMERCIAL COMPOST FACILITY
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.
Our quest toward a paradigm shift from linear to circular began in 2011. We utilise the most innovative plant-based raw materials to design and develop elegant, low-emission packaging that can replace every plastic use case. Our packaging is certified compostable, intended to be recovered and composted along with food scraps, decreasing the waste of our takeaways and creating a more responsible future. If you have any questions regarding the sustainability of Ecoware products, please get in touch at email@example.com – we are ready to help.