How to Know the Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable
10 Minute Read.
Have you ever seen those products that have the word ‘compostable’ written on them, like disposable forks, knives, or food containers? These compostable products often look like plastic and feel like plastic, but are actually made from plants. Now, getting away from plastic is great, but here’s the problem: even though those products are technically compostable, they don’t actually biodegrade naturally. They won’t break down in a landfill either.
This is the point where everyone gets a little confused. You probably define the word ‘compostable’ as having the ability to naturally break down or biodegrade. However, when it comes to compostable products, this just isn’t the case. At the end of the day, they are great, but due to the lack of education around them, they’re not as harmless as you think they are. And with compostable products replacing many of the single-use plastics on the market, especially in the food industry, I want to clear up any confusion you may have around them.
Here’s the Break Down:
Compostable products are made from renewable resources such as corn, bamboo, and sugar cane. Whenever you see a product with the word ‘compostable’ on it, what that really means is it’s commercially compostable. A commercial compost facility is a place where the perfect balance of heat, moisture, and oxygen is created to break down organic and plant-based materials. Without this perfect ecosystem, compostable products do not break down. To really put that into perspective, if you dispose of them in the trash, which is what people commonly do, they won’t break down.
For a product to be labelled as compostable, the materials must disintegrate by 90% within 90 days of being in a commercial facility (WorldCentric.org). In addition, they must create zero toxicity during the degradation process. If they do not meet these requirements, they cannot be certified as compostable.
Biodegradable VS Compostable, and the element of Greenwashing:
Here’s where I get a little sciencey: “The term biodegradable is … often misused in [the] marketing and advertising of products and materials that are not actually environmentally friendly… The definition of biodegradable is a material [that] is capable of undergoing biological … degradation, leading to the production of [carbon dioxide, water,] methane, biomass, and mineral salts… [However, unlike something that is certified compostable], the term biodegradable means very little, as everything is biodegradable [over time]” (BioBag). In other words, something can take 5,000 years to naturally biodegrade, and legally, it can still be labelled as biodegradable.
Greenwashing can be a very effective marketing strategy. It is used to create the illusion that a company or organization has taken environmental factors into consideration when creating their products or services. It’s important to watch out for products that are labeled as biodegradable because you are likely being greenwashed. Unless a product states the length of time it will take to biodegrade, for example, three months, it cannot be certified as compostable.
Keeping all of this newfound information in mind, it’s important to note that compostable products do not solve the world’s pollution problems. Without proper disposal, they are as much of a threat to our oceans and wildlife as regular plastics because they do not break down in nature.
My guess is you probably still have a ton of unanswered questions about compostable products. To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of FAQs to explain the common ways of identifying them and what proper disposal looks like.
Compostable Products: Let’s Break it Down [pun intended]
What’s the difference between regular plastics and compostable plastics?
There are two main differences:
- Compostable plastics are made from renewable resources, such as corn and sugar cane, while traditional plastics are made from nonrenewable resources such as oil, gas, and coal.
- Compostable plastics are non-toxic, while regular plastics leach toxic chemicals into our bodies and into the environment. “Exposure to [these chemicals has been] linked to cancer, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments” (Plastic Pollution Coalition).
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To summarize, compostable plastics are non-toxic and come from renewable resources—both good things for us and for the environment. However, they are not the solution to pollution and disposal issues. Because they fall into a new category that 99% of people have not been educated about, they often end up sitting in a landfill, or worse yet, finding their way into our waterways and oceans. Remember the video with the turtle and the straw? That could just as easily have been a compostable straw.
How do I know if something is compostable or not?
It will have:
- The word ‘Compostable’ written on it
- The letters ‘PLA’ written on it, or
- A recycling arrow with a #7 printed on it**
**Important: If a product has a #7 inside of the recycling arrow printed on it, but does not have ‘compostable’ or ‘PLA’ on it, then it is NOT compostable. The #7 is also the label for mixed plastics, which are neither recyclable nor compostable. I wish there was a better labelling system, but that’s the way it is right now. Any U.S. legislators reading?
So, how do you dispose of compostable products?
The best way is to send them to a commercial compost. Many cities or towns will provide bins to local organizations, parks and residents to facilitate proper disposal. If a compostable product has more of a paper consistency, or is a very thin film, it can potentially be disposed of in a backyard compost. This is not guaranteed, however, since decomposition relies on the elements (heat, moisture, oxygen).
**A backyard compost is a small-scale compost that uses natural elements and manual turning to aerate and break down organic materials. Commercial composts, on the other hand, have the ability to break down more dense materials (such as large branches and compostable plastics) that cannot be broken down quickly. For more information on the difference between backyard and commercial composts, click here.
Can compostable products be put in commercial compost bins along with food scraps?
Yes. Compostable products are made from plant byproducts, so they need to be disposed of in a commercial compost bin. Other accepted organics include food scraps, yard trimmings, dairy, meat, hair, nail clippings [you asked, so I’m getting real specific here], etc. For a full list of accepted items, click here.
Will compostable plastics biodegrade in the trash?
No. If sent to the landfill, compostable plastics can take as long as regular plastics to degrade or break down. Landfills simply do not have the oxygen and ventilation required for decomposition.
Can compostable plastics be put in the plastic recycling bin?
This is a hard NO. Because compostable plastics are made with different materials, they contaminate the recycling process.
How long do compostable products need to be gone?
Compostable products take 90 days to break down in a commercial compost facility. This is because the commercial environment is carefully controlled and regulated to facilitate optimal degradation. So, what about outside of a facility? Well, there is simply no way to tell how long they will take to break down. The time frame will differ based on the environment and climate. Usually, these conditions are not regulated in the same way that they would be in a commercial setting. In other words, it could take hundreds of years (i.e. just as long as standard plastic).
Why are they labeled as compostable if we can’t compost them at home?
As mentioned above, in terms of product labeling, the term ‘compostable’ always refers to something that is ‘commercially compostable.’ Presumably, they axed the ‘commercial’ part to simplify the label. However, without proper education, consumers are unaware that the products are not naturally compostable or biodegradable.
I think the responsibility lies with the manufacturers of the products as well as local governments. Both entities should be responsible for educating the general public about proper disposal. In addition, perhaps adding labels such as “not naturally biodegradable” or “suitable for commercial composts only” could bridge the educational gap.
Let’s look at an analogy. If the government redefines what jay-walking is, and doesn’t educate the general population of the new regulations, how can they expect you to abide by the law? Likewise, if you’re not educated about compostable products, how can you be expected to responsibly dispose of them?
Are there any compostable products that biodegrade naturally or quickly?
Compostable packing peanuts can easily break down within a few seconds of being exposed to moisture. For example, if you submerge compostable packing peanuts in water, they will quickly disintegrate into a slime or sludge. In addition, paper-like products, such as compostable paper straws, can biodegrade in a backyard compost. Depending on the environment, the straws will likely take a few weeks/months to biodegrade.
compostable paper straws
Is it better to use compostable bags instead of plastic bags?
Compostable bags are made from renewable resources, and they don’t have the same toxins and chemicals as plastic bags. For these reasons, it is my personal conclusion that they are a better alternative to plastic bags. That said, they typically do not break down in a landfill, just like plastic.
Other than compostable products, what can I put in a commercial compost?
The New York City commercial compost bins accept the following common household items. Keep in mind that each city differs, so its best to check with your local facilities.
- Cooked, baked, and otherwise prepared foods
- Cereal, flour, grains, pasta, and rice
- Spoiled and expired food
- Eggs and eggshells
- Dairy products
- Meat, fish, bones, seafood shells
- Nuts, seeds, pits, and shells
- Coffee grounds and tea leaves
- Pet food
Food-soiled Paper (Uncoated):
- Towels and napkins
- Paper plates
- Coffee filters and tea bags
- Paper bags
- Uncoated food service paper trays and boxes
- Any other food-soiled paper
Leaf and Yard Waste:
- Grass clippings
- Garden trimmings
- Plants and flowers
- Potting soil
Is animal waste (aka dog poop) accepted in commercial compost facilities?
Sadly, no. I made an inquiry with the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY). They said that their processors are unable to accept animal waste “while ensuring the finished compost is free of excess salts or pathogens. Municipalities that claim they accept pet waste in their organics program typically do not actually compost the material, but instead opt to send the material to an anaerobic digester. During this process, bags, both plastic and compostable, are removed and sent to landfill as residual waste” (Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability, NYC Department of Sanitation).
This means that those Compostable Poop Bags that you use to clean up after your pooch should be disposed of in the trash, not the compost. I’m sorry to be the Debbie Downer here.
What about bamboo products? Will they break down in a backyard compost?
Since bamboo is an organic material, a bamboo toothbrush can take about six months to break down in a backyard compost (this is an estimate for Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes; other brands may vary). NOTE: the majority of bamboo toothbrushes have plastic/nylon bristles. These are neither biodegradable nor compostable. These bristles must be removed from the bamboo handle, which can easily be done with pliers. Some bamboo toothbrush companies are starting to use plant-based bristles, which are less reliant on fossil fuels, but these are still compostable plastics and will not biodegrade outside of a commercial compost facility.
So, what’s the solution?
Because of the lack of education around compostable products, consumers often believe they are making an environmentally friendly decision (compared to using plastic). In reality, they are not making the best choice because they are not disposing of these items in a commercial compost. This is because they are uninformed about proper disposal or don’t have access a commercial compost facility.
In the future, I see a world where compostable products replace regular plastics across all industries. But consumers need education about proper disposal. In addition, commercial composts need integration into our waste disposal systems. In the same way that landfills are today. Every district, city, and town should have a commercial compost, paralleled with curbside collection so that it is easy and accessible for everyone. This will lead to a significant decrease in the size of landfills across the globe, reducing land toxicity levels, air pollution, and climate change.
I can’t stress the importance of doing your research on the products that you use. Don’t assume anything is recyclable or compostable without first verifying via the packaging, labeling, or company website.
I am always here if you have follow up questions about compostable products, or anything related to sustainability. Just drop me a line below 🙂