Waste Free Tennessee

Helping you make the transition to a more eco-friendly lifestyle, one step at a time. Reducing waste, choosing sustainability, and giving back to the environment to stop climate change and take care of this shared planet on which we live.

Understanding the Difference Between Compostable and Biodegradable

Have you ever been confused by the terms of product packaging? If you answered yes, you are not alone. The terms are often used incorrectly, exacerbating the problem till consumers get frustrated. Especially when it comes to these three terms it is incredibly easy to be confused. 

In an effort to replace conventional plastic, many alternative products have come on the market.

You may see “compostable” and “biodegradable” used interchangeably. This is a mistake as the terms have different definitions and knowing why is important because they need to be disposed of properly. 

Biodegradable vs Compostable vs. Degradable

Let’s take a look at the differences between degradable, biodegradable, and compostable products. Each is made from different materials and deteriorate under varied circumstances.

Degradable means that a product will degrade due to chemicals that are added to ensure it falls apart more quickly. That’s not always the best when you realize that many plastic grocery bags are labeled degradable. Meaning they are made with plastic and chemicals, including heavy metals. 

When exposed to the elements (sunlight, air, water) these degradable bags break down into tiny pieces. This is still plastic and now it is degraded into small pieces that animals might swallow.

Biodegradable means living things (microorganisms) can break it down. To biodegrade means decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Plastic bags and other biodegradable materials labeled biodegradable must be discarded with regular trash! 

Biodegradable Products

When you see the word biodegradable, what that means is that at some point it will eventually break down; whether it happens in one month or one century.

When biodegradable products end up in the landfill they can be buried deep in the pile, cut off from all sources of oxygen. At this point, the beneficial bacteria needed to break down the product cannot survive. This means that the item will break down anaerobically, creating toxic methane, a greenhouse gas. 

The best way to dispose of biodegradable items is in a commercial compost heap. Optionally, you can send them to a participating recycling plant. Biogas plants use biodegradable products to create methane which they then use to generate electricity. There are over 2,200 biogas facilities in the US.

Biodegradable means

When you see labeling indicating biodegradability, what that means is that at some point it will eventually break down into smaller pieces; whether it happens in one month or one century.

Unfortunately, biodegradable products break down anaerobically (without oxygen) which creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is very bad for the environment. In fact, this greenhouse gas is around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Dispose of “biodegradable” products according to the package instructions or take them to a commercial compost facility or see if they are recyclable.

Avocado pits are biodegradable, but typically take six months or longer to completely break down. 

Compostable means 

Organic waste can only break down properly under specific conditions. Oxygen is needed in order for microbes to decompose organic wastes efficiently. 

ASTM D6400 in reference to compostable products means that a product is able to be processed in municipal or industrial composting facilities. 

Here is the distinction between products that can be broken down or composted and biodegraded. ASTM D6400 was specifically made to identify plastics that are compliant with these standards.

Three other standards are widely used for industrial composting:

  • The specification for labeling of plastics designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities (D6400);
  • The test method for determining aerobic biodegradation of plastic materials under controlled composting conditions, incorporating thermophilic temperatures (D5338); and 
  • The test method for determining aerobic biodegradation of plastic materials in the marine environment by a defined microbial consortium or natural sea water inoculum (D6691).

Of the three, D6400 has the most global recognition and is the standard most used for composting.” Source

Compostable Products

In terms of the environment, compostable is a much better choice, however, there are things you need to know. 

Currently, there’s only one way to identify a product/packaging that is made to be composted. That is the BPI label which represents a scientific testing process that ensures the certified product will safely break down in a commercial composting facility.  

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) compostable means ‘all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become a part of, usable compost (e.g., soil conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting program or facility, or in a home compost pile or device.’’ 

A timely manner means in about 90 days (one composting cycle) and it leaves no toxic residue. These compostable products cannot be recycled and unfortunately, when they mistakenly are added to a recycling bin it contaminates the entire batch.

Carbon dioxide is necessary for composting. Wooden cutlery is biodegradable but not compostable because it takes a bit longer than the typical composting cycle. 

Remember, compostable materials are those which will decompose into natural elements in around 90 days or less without leaving toxins behind.  It benefits the environment by recovering organic resources at the same time saving the space in landfills.

Compostable packaging

We can appreciate the effort when a company chooses compostable packaging for shipping our products. The question is, what happens to this packaging if we are not able to transfer it to an industrial composting facility?

Compostable plastic is a problem as they look identical and are not necessarily good for the environment. Cutlery is a great example of a compostable plastic that often has a higher environmental impact than regular plastic packaging. There are so many different types of compostable plastics, some from soy, corn, sugarcane, and these require farming. 

In addition, plastic products and compostable plastic looks so similar that it creates a problem for composting facilities. You may see signs at some composting facilities that say no compostable plastics, please

BPI compostable plastics will break down without harming the quality of the finished compost.

What does compostable in industrial facilities mean?

Industrial composting turns compostable packaging and other products into high-quality compost which can, in turn, be used for soil remediation. This leads to a greener environment, better food security, reduced waste, and a decrease in dumpster truck traffic hauling garbage.

Here’s what you’ll find on most packaging that is labeled as compostable. Most Americans don’t have access to compostable industrial facilities. 

Many places are starting to ban plastics but replacing them with compostable plastic does not appear to be the solution. Look for the BPI compostable certification and then do what you can to make sure it ends up being composted! You can search for certified BPI products here.

What does commercially compostable only mean?

Commercially compostable means that these products can only be composted in a controlled environment such as an industrial composting facility. There are three ways for these facilities to process large volumes of municipal and commercial waste. 

Aerated Static Pile – Process in which decomposing organic material is placed in piles over an air supply system that can be used to supply oxygen and control temperature for the purpose of producing compost. Piles must be insulated to assure that all parts of the decomposing material reach and maintain temperatures at or above 55°C for a minimum of 3 days.

Turned Window – Process in which decomposing organic materials are placed in long piles for the purpose of producing compost. The piles are periodically turned or agitated to assure all parts of the decomposing material reach the desired stability.

In-vessel – Process in which decomposing organic material is enclosed in a drum, silo, bin, tunnel, or other container for the purpose of producing compost; and in which temperature, moisture and air-borne emissions are controlled, vectors are excluded and nuisance and odor generation minimized.

Read more about it on TN.gov.

How do you use industrial compost? 

Some industrial compost facilities make compost available to the public free of charge to spread on local farms, use for erosion control, enhance vegetation, or apply to topsoil mixtures. Compost can be used for soil retention, to improve grass and other vegetation. It can be also be used in “socks” on hills and park paths to control erosion and sediment runoff.

Find a composter near you here.

Are compostable plates really compostable?

The problem with compostable food containers comes down to what truly happens at the end of their use-cycle. We need standardized labeling for compostable products (just like we need them for recycling.) This is key in making progress in reducing confusion in sorting facilities and getting packaging where it needs to go for break-down.

Most compostable items, especially compostable plastics, look exactly like their non-compostable counterparts. Clamshell containers, lids, and utensils are simply embossed, often on the bottom of the item, to identify them as compostable while claims on the products themselves vary widely, from “Compostable” to “Biodegradable” to statements about sourcing like “Made from corn.” Green or brown stripes may be added to larger items, but non-compostable items can also be marked with green or brown symbols. Without Better Labeling Compostable Packaging Will Struggle

At events, the best preventative measure is to provide a collection place with clearly marked signage telling people where and how to dispose of plates. This would include scraping meats or other food items that are unsuited for composting off of plates before adding to the collection area.

For those who choose to add compostable dinnerware to a compost pile, it’s important not to add too many at once as they can become sticky or clump up and slow the breakdown of the entire pile. Tearing up the plates before adding them to your heap can help to speed the process. 

When it comes to compostable utensils, the best solution is to feed them into a shredder before composting. This is not going to happen at home, however, at large events or industrial facilities, it is a possibility. A shredder cuts them into tiny pieces so they decompose in the compost pile more quickly.

Home compostable is what most of us need

Reusable dishes are the best choice for the environment, but in some situations, they won’t work. For example, a reunion at a park. When reusable dishware is not an option, we can look for the next best thing.

Bamboo is very sustainable and makes an excellent choice for disposable plates. After use, they can be added to home composting where they will break down in about six months.

Look for home compostable. These products are made with potato starch, corn starch, sugar cane, cassava, sugar beet, and other plant-based materials. In addition, these do not produce toxic materials when composted. Home compostable plates can be added to the food scraps, grass clippings and other organic matter that you collect in your compost bin.

Get a compost bin so you’ll have somewhere to collect organic materials that can be turned back into valuable soil. If an outdoor compost area is not possible, consider a solution like Foodcycler for compost. Read more about using a Foodcycler here.

Perhaps compostability is not the real issue

With so much confusion surrounding finding a way to enhance disposable containers, aren’t we missing the big picture?

The biggest problem that I see with using paper plates whether they are biodegradable or compostable or bio-plastic, is that we are still in that “disposable mentality.” This frame of mind is what harms the environment. Rather than trying to find the best possible disposable products, why not spend that creative energy figuring out a way to promote and use reusable items instead?

After all, if a compostable item ends up in the landfill, isn’t it an even bigger waste of time, money, and effort?

I get it, it’s a bit unrealistic, especially during the current time period when “take-away” food is more popular than ever due to the pandemic. Most of us are just trying to survive 2020 and perhaps a little take-out is helping us get through another tough day. I know I’ve certainly been there recently. A long day of work followed by a few hours of driving kids to extra-curricular activities, trying to catch up on laundry, and wondering what’s for dinner.

Before disposables

But what did our great-grandparents do back before disposable items were invented in the 1930s?

Well, they were the original inventors of “bring your own” everything. When making purchases, meat was wrapped in butcher paper, other foods were carried in glass or metal containers. Cotton material was used for diapers, cloth or string bags were used for carrying produce, and wooden crates were used before cardboard boxes. In some parts of the world, banana leaves are still used for plates. 

Does this take effort? Yes! Is it more expensive? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how you approach it. If you consider making food at home is typically less expensive than eating out. Coffee using a french press, pour-over, or drip machine at home in a reusable cup is less expensive. 

The goal here is to start thinking. Once you become aware, it’s hard to ignore when you are faced with these choices. I’d love to be able to say that I make the best choices every time, but that would be untruthful. I still have a garbage can, still take out the trash, and I still agonize over where it may end up.

But on the positive side, I have made my family more aware. We’ve drastically cut down on the number of disposable products in our home. My son recently sent me a snap from the produce section where rows and rows of corn had its natural wrap (the husks) removed and replaced with plastic. He said, “if only this corn grew in some kind of protective covering we wouldn’t need to wrap it in this plastic.”

Right?

We do better when we can, we take it one step at a time. As I like to encourage, try not to think of this as an all-or-nothing lifestyle. The best way to do this and avoid frustration is one baby step at a time. I’m not “there” yet; we’re all in different stages of progression and awareness. That’s why I refer to waste reduction as a “zero-waste effort” putting stress on the endeavor to do better.

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