Many people confuse "compostable" and "biodegradable," considering them interchangeable terms - which is incorrect! Whether you are looking at shopping/produce bags, bin liners, or tableware, it can be hard to determine the best option for the environment and for your business. In order to make genuinely planet-friendly and cost-effective choices, it's essential to understand what biodegradable and compostable mean, what they don't mean, and how they differ.
Let's Talk Biodegradation
The term "biodegradable" refers to a product's ability to decompose into elements that are absorbed back into the environment. Biodegradation is a naturally occurring process that breaks down organic matter into carbon dioxide (CO), water, inorganic compounds such as salts or simple sugars – and biomass, which is the biodegraded material. Biodegradable materials can be found in nature and are created by bacteria as part of their metabolic process to break down any organic matter they find into simpler components that can then be absorbed back into the ecosystem.
As an added benefit, biodegradable products are typically made from natural materials such as cornstarch, potato starch or sugar cane alcohol.
The environmental benefits for choosing biodegradability include the reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) and carbon emissions. Not all biodegradable products are created equally, however. Many of them are laced with inorganic material that breaks down into smaller elements, contaminating the soil as a result.
A Brief History of Biodegradables
The technology for producing these materials has been around since the 1940s, but only recently have chemical companies like BASF started to commercialize them.
Many industries rely on biodegradable materials, including agriculture, medical/healthcare, textiles, and personal care products. Many of these segments have made significant strides in development, but the reality is that most biodegradable materials are not being composted or recycled.
Biodegradable plastics have been around for a while, but the technology is still relatively new and expensive.
The first generation of bioplastics were made from sugar cane ethanol by-products called lactic acid, blended with petroleum-based polymers to create an environmentally friendly plastic.
The second generation of bioplastic technology uses polylactic acid (PLA) made from starch and sugar cane or crops like corn, wheat and potatoes that can be grown year after year instead of petroleum-based materials such as nylon or polyester fibres. These materials hold promise as a replacement for conventional plastics. Still, they face many hurdles, such as the fact that they don't degrade well under sunlight and can contaminate compost with their synthetic base polymer, which is not biodegradable.
The third generation of bioplastics is now emerging, using renewable sources to create bio-based polyester, which is made by fermenting sugars into a caprolactone chemical. It can then be combined with petroleum-derived chemicals to form the hard material that most people think of when they hear "plastic."
Let's Talk Compostable
The term compostable refers to products or packaging that can break down in both traditional and industrial waste composting facilities - where microorganisms break down organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, through a method called aerobic decomposition. In other words, compost is simply decomposed organic matter rich in nutrients typically used to fortify soils for gardening, horticulture, and agriculture. Also known as "black gold," compost is made by the natural process that occurs after combining water with brown materials (like dead leaves, twigs, and branches) and green materials (like grass clippings and fruit and veggie scraps). Most compostable products are made from materials such as corn starch, vegetable oil, and other renewable plant-based sources. Compostable plastic products are also known as bioplastic, bio-based plastic, green plastic, corn plastic (polylactic acid), PLA (corn starch), PCL (Polycaprolactone) and PBS (polybutylene succinate).
A Brief History of Compost
The history of compost is exciting and important! By taking a closer look into its origins, one can summarize that the benefits of composting have been used for centuries. Archaeological evidence from the British Isles suggests that Scots improved their small-scale farms with compost as far back as 12,000 years ago. Even George Washington is considered one of "America's First Composters." Washington was a productive farmer with interest in new agricultural technologies. He experimented widely and had his own composting operation at Mount Vernon, where he turned animal waste into topsoil for his orchards. Washington understood the value of compost and how it can improve soil structure, fertility, and water retention. Washington also knew that he could produce more food from his land with compost than without it. Thus, the history of composting reflects a proven resource with few negative consequences or detriments from using this approach now or in the future.
Biodegradable Plastics VS Compostable Plastics - Which One Is Right for My Business?
When looking at biodegradation versus composting of plastic products, composability refers to organic materials being decomposed by bacteria. The key difference between compostable products versus biodegradable products is that compostable plastics can be used as a viable food source for those organisms thriving in the decomposition process. The biggest difference between the two, however, is that while biodegradable plastics break down into smaller pieces, compostables break down into water and carbon dioxide which are natural elements in the environment. It's also important to point out that not all biodegradable products are necessarily compostable; for instance, food scraps cannot be composted in a backyard compost pile, but they are biodegradable. The environmental benefits for choosing products with compostability also include the reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG) and carbon emissions along with methane gas, which is 25x more potent than CO₂, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.
We Choose Compostable Products at BioFlexx
At BioFlexx, we believe in the rich history and the sustainable power of compostable products towards a greener future. Although choosing between Biodegradable vs. Compostable products can often be confusing, we hope this blog post helps you feel more empowered to make the best choice for your business. And if you still need convincing, contact us for your free sample today.