The difference between Biodegradable & Compostable.
Biodegradable and Compostable are two words we hear a lot these days and are often used interchangeably. There is however a difference between the two and it can be difficult to get you head around the difference and which one is better for us. I have been researching into these terms a lot and often got confused between which one is better for the environment as there is a lot of science behind the two terms. I have sifted through all of this information and tried to breakdown what each one means and what that means for us and our rubbish at home.
What does Biodegradable mean?
Often seen on products that we buy which makes us think it is eco friendly. (myself included) Biodegradable actually refers to anything which will naturally breakdown in the environment. It can be a misleading term because most items will bio-degrade given time. There are also no time limits for a product to be deemed biodegradable so it could take years. So for example a plastic bag could be deemed as biodegradable as eventually it will breakdown.
How does degradation happen?
For something to biodegrade they are broken down by other living organisms such as Fungi, bacteria and algae. The products will eventually completely breakdown in time, by nature. This process can occur aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen). Of course the process of degradation happens much faster if done aerobically as oxygen helps break molecules apart. (oxidation). It is also important to note that although a product might completely breakdown, it could leave behind small traces of toxins from the product. It is also important to understand that when we send food to landfill and it degrades in a anaerobic environment, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas which is one of the biggest issues we face within global warming. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
So does our rubbish sent to landfill biodegrade?
This is where the problem lies. Although products may be bioderadable, sending them to landfill can prevent them for degrading. This is because most landfills lack the oxygen and micro-organisms (fungi, bacteria etc) needed to completely breakdown the item. Landfills are packed so tightly which stops this process from happening, meaning that a lot of products sent to landfill can be found in almost perfect condition years after because they haven't be able to degrade. Even items such as newspapers have been found in landfill years after in perfect condition and readable which is shocking when we know how easily a newspaper can be broken down.
So what can we do with biodegradable items?
From what I've learnt so far, biodegradable items aren't necessarily bad, we just don't currently have the right means to allow products to degrade properly so they aren't good for our environment. If your biodegradable items are going to landfill then these probably won't degrade for a very long time or even at all, therefore if the item can't be composted or recycled then try avoid using this.
What does Compostable mean?
Compostable means that a product can breakdown completely into natural elements within a compost environment, leaving behind no toxins within the soil. Although this sounds quite similar to biodegradable, the key differences here are that for something to compost it must be made up of totally organic material, it must be within a compost environment and it also leaves nothing toxic behind when it has broken down. Unlike biodegradable products for something to be truly compostable, it needs to be able to compose within a time limit, usually 180 days. (this is for industrial composting only)
What is a compost environment?
This basically means it needs to have a certain level of oxygen, heat and moisture to be able to breakdown completely; this means if you send something compostable to landfill it will not compost. Most items can be composted at home (if you have a compost bin) as the oxygen, temperature and moisture levels are fine for a product to breakdown, although this might take longer. There will be certain products, which can't be home composted because the heat and moisture levels needed to help break these down will be more than what a home compost can provide. For anything to legally be labelled as compostable this will mean it can be composted industrially. (so through your council, through your garden and organic waste collection service). My advice is to always check with your council what they accept in your garden and organic waste bin. Without getting into all the detail about how to compost there are loads of great websites and blogs about how to compost at home. It has really helped educate me on what to do with my food waste.
What can we do to be more eco with our waste?
Just because something says biodegradable it does not mean it’s good for the environment because it may not actually ever break down. Many companies can mislead us to thinking we are doing good by switching to something biodegradable which can often be more expensive. The best thing we can do or our environment is to REDUCE the amount we consume and the amount of waste we create. REUSE products to stop these going to landfill and RECYCLE products to give them a new life. Food waste can be sent to be composted through your council if you do not have a compost bin but you can also start home composting.
My Favourite Compostable products:
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