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What's the difference between compostable and biodegradable?

What's the difference between compostable and biodegradable?

Can you spot the difference? We have two identical products that can be interpreted as “eco-friendly”. One is labelled “Biodegradable” and the other “Compostable”. So you spot the difference, but do you know the difference? A lot of people don't, and this is the issue. One can achieve diversion from landfills and assist in a sustainable circular economy, while the other could break down into micro fragments and pollutant the environment; a significant difference.


We see many "eco-friendly" advertising terms on products; compostable, biodegradable, degradable. Which is better? What do they mean? We’ll clarify some terms.


Degradable  Something that simply breaks down. Yup, that’s it. We can call paper “degradable” because it degrades in a fire, water, even when stomped upon, regardless of the time taken to do so. Most things 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”. It's a broad term...too broad in fact.


Biodegradable  An extension of degrading; something that breaks down naturally. Biodegradation must involve break down by living micro-organisms. Glass cannot biodegrade but paper can. Organic matter like food scraps is biodegradable as it will rot naturally. So we have a bit more information here than "degrading", but there are some missing pieces. 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 just a few weeks to break down but into tiny toxic fragments existing for years in our environment can also be classified as biodegradable. So it's a broad term with room for hidden information, but has the impression of being "eco-friendly". 


Compostable  Products that are designed to turn into nutrient-rich compost, a valuable resource that helps with the growth of plants. When products are composted there is no “waste” as nutrients are recycled. Fortunately, this is a term that leaves no room to hide. For a product to be labeled as "compostable" there are performance standards to be met first. Under the International Organization for Standardization (IOS), there are 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:


1) 100% biodegrade,

2) biodegrade into completely non-toxic by-products, and

3) biodegrade within 90 days.


So this term means business! It's clearly defined unlike the others.


Most Ecoware products are tested and certified commercially compostable. For the above three things to be achieved for our packaging, optimal conditions are required: high temperature (on average 65°C), sufficient moisture and air, and the right population of microorganisms to chew down the waste. All these things are achieved in a commercial facility.


OK, so what about products that are certified home compostable? The Australian home composting standard requires a product to:


1) 100% biodegrade,

2) biodegrade into completely non-toxic by-products, and

3) biodegrade within 180 days.


The only difference between the home and commercial composting standard is the time frame. Products break down quicker in a commercial compost because everyone's home compost bin conditions will vary from household to household. Not everyone will be able to maintain a high temperature in their bin or the correct balance of waste or the population of microorganisms. There are also different home composting solutions available, for example, worm bins, bokashi bins, and hot and cold composting. Each system requires different types of inputs to work effectively (some need brown and green waste, others need just green waste) and operate in different environments (some aerobic, some anaerobic). Therefore, the rate of biodegradation will vary for everyone with home compost.


Ecoware has a range of products tested and certified for home composting, but because of the variety of everyone's home compost situation, sometimes it might take longer to break down.


We hope we've clarified a few common advertising terms for you. Ecoware packaging can be found in a number of cafes, food trucks, and organisations that are trying to make a difference but using products that support the composting industry and diversion of waste from landfills. They want consumers to join them on a journey towards improved sustainability. Together, we can make better choices when we have a better understanding.