Compostable vs. Biodegradable
Why it's not easy being green
Let's break it down
There has been a lot of confusion when we talk about composting and biodegrading waste, especially with the rise of 'greenwashing' products - using colours that misrepresent environmentally friendly packaging, and terms that we don't understand to help sell products.
The term 'compostable' is used when we talk about organic matter. This waste, like vegetable scraps or ground coffee, degrades in it's environment easily, and quickly. It most often leaves being good nutrients to create it's own healthy soil fertilizers. Compostable waste can be disposed of in a home compost bin.
The important thing here is to recognise which natural items can be composted safely. Dog food scraps or meat can have bacteria, that while it may decompose easily, can bring disease or attract pests, and harm the worms that help us compost! Again, while tea leaves can be composted, tea bags may have toxic microplastics that we don't want seeping into the ground.
The term 'biodegrable' is used quite generally, for any material that degrades in any environment. That's why, it's a word to watch out for! It can include natural products, but it can also include toxic waste and microplastics. On top of this, the word 'biodegradable' does not state when the item will degrade.
Natural materials that are biodegradable as opposed to compostable, generally take longer to break down and use more energy to degrade - such as a large piece of timber. Another example is these eco-friendly brushes, which are essentially created without any toxic materials, meaning biodegrading is safe and creates zero-waste, but a slower process.
Packaging that is deemed biodegradable might be named so, but what it might leave behind can harm animals and crops. Watch out for things like 'biodegrable plastic cups' which may eventually biodegrade, but leave microplastics behind. Similarly, a natural piece of timber that is COATED in toxic oil, will leave behind toxins in the ground. Some packaging may also be 'compostable' or 'biodegradable', but require factory conditions to break down - proving to be a less sustainable option in the long run.
Finally, to really help explain the differences, they each have unique purposes. Composting, when done right, provides healthy fertilisers; while Biodegrading, when done right, means less resources are required to dispose of products and no pollution or landfill is gained in it's process.
It's always important to think about the following in your decision to compost or support sustainable products:
1. Time - how long does it take to degrade?
2. Resources - how much energy is used in the process?
3. Material - is the matter safe and organic?
4. Byproduct - what does it leave behind?
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