Biodegradable vs compostable – Know Your Labels

If you think about it, us humans have developed a set of particular skills passed down from one generation to the next, significant to our survival in nature. Which plants are poisonous and which aren’t; what colors mean “safe” and “danger”. All these skills are extremely valuable, but set to help us survive in nature. What happens when instead of forests and meadows, you need to apply these skills to aisles in the supermarkets? How to discern one harmful ingredient from another, and how to decipher all the confusing labels and terminology? Here we’ll break down some of the most common labels you’ll encounter while grocery shopping. 

What does biodegradable mean?

Let’s start from the most obvious one – Biodegradable. “Bio” is here for “life”, “degrade” means it will “break down” and “able” obviously means that it’s able to make it “happen”. Biodegradation is the natural process of breaking down material’s form into its component parts. Sounds simple and a pretty green solution right? For example, plastic will break down mainly into carbon dioxide and water. Almost everything, if given enough time, is biodegradable. Even diapers will decompose. But the main question here is how long this process lasts. The above mentioned diapers take approximately 500 years to decompose.

Basically speaking everything you place on the landfill will eventually degrade. If you are looking for the greener solution, the key is to take note of HOW LONG it will take for your biodegradable item to degrade. Some will take months and years, others take decades or centuries.

The biodegradable label

When you spot “biodegradable” on a product, there are three main questions that arise. How long will it take for something to degrade, under which conditions, and what gasses does it emit while breaking down. Unfortunately, biodegradable labels do not have a standard for them, so there is really no way to know  

What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable plastics?

Why biodegradable products shouldn’t go to landfills?

We already covered that biodegradable, while it means “decomposable”, doesn’t pertain to any meaningful standard. This biodegradable label-sticking frenzy is especially harmful when it comes to plastic. Despite being put with the rest of the “eco-friendly” credential, biodegradable plastic is not suitable for disposing at home and municipal landfills. 

You’ve probably seen those microplastics Gen-Z memes, taking a piss out of previous generations’ ignorance with believing any plastic can “biodegrade”. So, right now, all living organisms, including us, have some amount of microplastic present in our bodies. It goes without saying that plastic shouldn’t go to landfills for this very reason.

Now imagine other “biodegradable materials”, that are organic in nature, whose decomposition releases methane and other flammable gasses, combined with microplastics. It is but a nightmare fuel for any of us with a decent amount of ecological consciousness. 


What is compostable?

Compostable is a whole another story, as composting is basically a decomposition process that mimics natural decomposition of organic matter.

Composting itself is the process of recycling organic waste to the point it can be reused again: from decomposing organic materials into soil fertilizer, with help of hard-working bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms.

On the other hand on the labeling it means something totally different – that the compostable product can be turned into compost IF GETS INTO INDUSTRIAL COMPOSTING STATION. Take note here that if you see COMPOSTABLE on your package it doesn’t mean it will biodegrade naturally if left down on the landfill. Usually they need the right conditions like temperature, moist, etc. provided only in industrial compost facilities.

The compostable label

When we realize that Compostable labels actually mean that we need an industrial compost(the right conditions) and actually the facility that is working on degrading our trash, all our efforts to be more sustainable can seem doomed.

The Home Compostable certificate is the hardest one to have. It also means exactly what is said – it can be placed in your home compost bin and it will decompose into an organic rich soil! It also means that every component and material( ink, seal, glue…) will be non toxic food for your microorganisms and worms.

Home Compostable products are the only ones that don’t(still not) hide the message behind the words.

Better Packaging’s bags that are past date of expiration can be used in the garden

The other compostable labels refer to materials that are compostable only in industrial composting facilities, which are still insufficiently present. The general public is still unaware of these differences, which is where the responsibility lies on big brands and companies, as well as governing officials to educate, provide solutions and develop clear options to citizens.

How to dispose of compostable products?

With previously mentioned differences, it’s only logical that we can be certain that organic material (paper, cotton, linen, plants, etc) is home compostable. So the question is – what do we do with those compostable labeled products that are not suitable for home composting?

Industrial composting process is extremely complex. If you’re lucky enough to have a composting facility near where you live, there’s a plethora of additional requirements you need to familiarize yourself with, such as: does your composter take yard waste only? Or food only? Or none? How many days does it take for certain products to decompose? What about PLA?

Very often, the industrial composting process relies on predominantly underpaid workers on minimum wages, who are not trained to spot the difference between compostable labels and materials.

The best solution is, if you’re not sure about whether a product belongs in the composting stream – throw it away with mixed trash. It’s better if it ends up in a landfill, unfortunately, than contaminating the industrial composting process.  

Greenwashing Alert

As with every other movement that gets hijacked by big corporations and brands, such is the fate of eco conscious living too. This is why we see an overwhelming amount of products labeled as biodegradable, as this does not require any certification whatsoever.

Additionally, thanks to the legally gray areas corporations swim in, even in countries where such legislation exists, it’s still very easy for manufacturers to get away with misleading labels. This is especially true when it comes to labeling plastic products as biodegradable. 

Your knowledge can make the world more sustainable!

Inform yourself, take initiative, ask questions. The more you go down this rabbit hole, the more questions you’ll raise and be aware of. Start with examining the labels on the products you buy. Find alternatives. Be wary of biodegradable products advertised as such.. Reach out to customer support to inquire about the certification procedures for these products. Join meaningful initiatives such as Plastic Free July to learn how to engage your local communities. In the end – commit to reducing the consumption of products overall with “the five R’s” – refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and then recycle instead. Be patient with yourself while you develop these new skills, as we mentioned at the very beginning of the text – survival skills for us humans are innate and necessary. When the wilderness is made out of plastic, packaging and products, our skills need to evolve accordingly. 


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One thought on “Biodegradable vs compostable – Know Your Labels

  1. Reply
    September 7, 2023 at 2:52 am

    Good luck!

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