Biodegradable vs. Compostable

Many packaging products use the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable.” But what exactly do these terms actually mean, and what is the difference between them?


These terms are often used interchangeably, and even sometimes incorrectly. In order to truly make sustainable choices and fully understand the impact of product packaging on the environment, it is important to understand what these terms mean and how they differ.


What Does Biodegradable Mean?

The term biodegradable refers to any material that can be broken down by micro-organisms and is capable of being decomposed into the natural environment. Biodegradation is a natural occurring process. The time taken for this process to occur is dependent on the chemical composition of the material and the way it is stored. For example, vegetables take approximately 5 days to 1 month to biodegrade. However, a plastic bag can take over 500 years!


In order for packaging to state the words ‘biodegradable’ they must completely break down and decompose into natural elements within a short time after disposal – typically a year or less. The good thing about biodegradable packaging materials is their ability to biodegrade within landfill, helps to reduce the build-up of waste, contributing to a safer, cleaner and healthier environment.


What Does Compostable Mean?

Compostable is defined as a material than can biodegrade under specific and human-driven circumstances. The key difference is that biodegradation is a natural process, whereas composting requires human intervention. During composting, microorganisms break down organic matter with the help of humans, who contribute the water, oxygen, and organic matter necessary to optimize conditions. Compostable products break down quite quickly in a compostable environment and leave behind a nutrient-rich organic material called humus, which creates a healthy soil environment for new plant growth!


Compostable products are great for the environment; they take less time to break down and don’t leave behind any toxic residue (as opposed to some biodegradable options), and can provide the Earth with nutrients once they are fully broken down.


Compostable materials are similar to biodegradable materials, as they are both intended to return to the earth safely. However, compostable materials go one step further by providing the earth with nutrients once the material has completely broken down. If you’re trying to reduce your environmental impact, compostable items are a good option, and it also means that it won't end up in a landfill when placed in the correct waste stream! And remember, while all compostable products are biodegradable, not all biodegradable products are compostable.


It can be difficult at times to determine if a material is actually biodegradable or compostable, so make sure you always check the packaging and labels!


Here at AGC, as part of our waste management services we can help provide your site with compostable packaging solutions. Visit our website to learn more!

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