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Biodegradable vs. Compostable. What’s the difference?

You might often come across packaging that is labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable”. What exactly do these terms mean? Are they all the same? What do I do with this type of packaging when I am done with it?

We were also thoroughly confused by the mass amounts of misinformation out there, so we came up with this little guide to help. Let’s start with some definitions:

  • Biodegradable: Materials that are broken down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass by microorganisms within a reasonable length of time. As you can see, biodegradable is a seemingly meaningless term. We suggest avoiding packaging that only says it is biodegradable without any clarification. Saying something is biodegradable, just means that it will eventually break down into smaller pieces. It does not specify how long or what it will break down into. It could be harmful gasses or microscopic pieces that not even our best filters and filter out. Here at the Impact Lab, we do not recognize biodegradable as an end-of-life plan for our packaging.

  • Compostable: Once placed in a designated composting site, the material will decompose, such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with known compostable materials. Compostable is another umbrella term that we try to avoid. This one is a little better because it does imply that the material will break down into carbon dioxide and water under specific conditions. Without proper certification (see our post on eco-labels), we do not recommend using packaging that just says “compostable” on it.)

  • Home Compostable: The consumer simply can place the packaging in the home compost bin along with fruits and vegetables. Any component or material used in the packaging including the printing ink, and the adhesives decompose into organic soil. If you home compost, we applaud you! What a great way to cut down the amount of waste you are creating. There are very few manufactured products that are home compostable, mushroom packaging is a great example. Again, we recommend only putting certified home compostable packaging in your home compost. Check out the EPA’s guide to home composting.

  • Industrial Compostable: This type of packaging has the ability to biodegrade and decompose only in a commercial composting facility. Industrial composting facilities treat the packaging at high temperatures (above 55 degrees, much higher than can be achieved at home) to accelerate degradation of the material. Most packaging that is labeled any type of compostable means industrially compostable. Those bioplastic cups and forks that are so popular in the food service industry right now can only be composted if they make it to an industrial composting facility when you are done using it. If that does not happen, it will go to landfill. Bioplastics are labeled #7 (other) and are not included in any of our plastic recycling streams. Many of these restaurants do collect compost in the actual establishment. If you leave with their packaging, you might not be able to find a way to get to keep it out of a landfill.

Right now, there are only a few industrial composting facilities in the USA. We dream of a world where industrial composting facilities are equally accessible to everyone, where composting is a regular curbside pick up just like standard recycling.

Until that happens, the Impact Lab will try to maintain a balance between designing practical solutions within the current infrastructure and thinking ahead to what types of solutions could be even better for our lovely planet in the future.


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