I started writing a new sustainability post about surprising materials that can and cannot be recycled, and as I neared the end of it, something occurred to me: there’s some confusion about biodegradable vs compostable items and precisely what the difference is between them. So I decided that before I publish my other post, I’d clear this up first.
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Biodegradable vs Compostable – Do You Know the Difference?
It’s actually very important, because although the terms are similar with similar meanings they should not be used interchangeably. The definition of each is critical to helping consumers understand what it is we’re purchasing and often buying into as well – eco-friendly products are becoming big business, and large corporations are very aware of this.
Unfortunately, not all businesses are as scrupulous as we’d hope or they’d have us believe and there’s a new phenomenon of ‘greenwashing’ taking place.
Do You Know When You’re Being Greenwashed?
If you’ve not heard this term before it’s essentially when companies make claims about their products in order to appear green, when the reality is somewhat difference. I’ve been caught out myself before and I’m becoming increasingly cynical when I see bold claims about environmentally friendly products and services.
For example, when I switched to biodegradable nappies and wipes, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders – until I discovered that if you look closely those very same nappies which are hailed as ‘eco friendly’ are actually only two thirds biodegradable. This is not clear until you read through their FAQ’s, and I also have something to say about their oxo-biodegradable outer packaging, which I’ll come to.
Eco Friendly Nappies?
The reality is that if you’re set on disposable nappies, then these are one of the best options available to you. But they are not 100% biodegradable, they are not plastic-free, and while they may be a sustainable alternative to those you can buy in the supermarket, they’re not environmental friendly.
The bottom line where nappies is concerned is that if you want to be sure you’re not sending plastic to landfill then cloth is currently your only viable option, unless you happen to be in Australia. After a ton of research, I discovered a brand there which is completely plastic-free, alas they don’t ship to the UK.
I started to look into cloth nappies but it seems that we’ve found another solution: Elfin is ready to be out of nappies. My plan is now to cancel our ‘biodegradable’ nappy subscription and focus on getting out of nappies altogether.
Compostable Versus Biodegradable Materials – Why It Matters
I’ve touched on greenwashing, but here’s why it’s so important to fully understand the difference:
Biodegradation refers to a biological process, during which matter is naturally broken down by bacteria and fungi, without human intervention. Several environmental factors affect the rate of degradation, most notably the availability of oxygen – and landfill sites typically have little or no air flow.
This means that many products we purchase in good faith because they’re labelled as biodegradable may, in practice, be little better than non-biodegradable alternatives.
In addition to above, the definition of biodegradation makes no reference to the length of time a material takes to degrade – meaning most products can technically be labelled such, and its meaning is thus diminished.
Composting on the other hand, involves human intervention leading to accelerated degradation in optimised conditions. This is what most people think of when they hear the term biodegradable, and why I decided to lay out the differences in a post.
A Word About Oxo-Degradation
You may have heard about the fantastic concept of oxo-biodegradable plastics, which sound fantastic: they fragment into tinier and tinier pieces called microplastics – what’s not to love?!
It’s true, fragmentation does take place – but what’s left in the environment doesn’t break down at a molecular or polymer level. Those tiny pieces of plastic will hang around for a very long time and are highly likely to be ingested by wildlife. While touted as a brilliant alternative to non-biodegradable plastic, the reality is that they’re probably even more harmful.
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Look for Compostable on the Label!
In order to be labelled as compostable, products must meet strict requirements, such as the European Standard 13432 for bioplastics.
Ultimately, the difference between biodegradable and compostable materials is the difference between making a genuine positive impact on the environment or not. If an item is compostable then you can rest assured that it meets specific characteristics which are good for the environment, and you are not being greenwashed by some clever marketing.
To clarify, all compostable materials are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable materials are compostable.
Now you know the difference between biodegradable vs compostable materials, but do you know what common items are and are not recyclable? If you’re as interested in this topic as I am then stay tuned for my mega list of non recyclable items coming soon!