Labeling that values transparency over misleading claims is how greenwashing occurs. These two words, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, are currently in vogue and could benefit from being differentiated. Although compostable items are always biodegradable, not all are. What, then, is the distinction?
The goal of reducing waste and its subsequent issues down at the landfill is an easy one to rally behind—but, as with most issues, the devil is in the details. Zero waste refers to a waste-free product lifespan, beginning with the initial design and extraction of raw materials and concluding with their disposal. Despite the fact that there are numerous terms and procedures in the field, they may confuse the general public and allow businesses to conceal their poor environmental conduct.
Essentially, greenwashing occurs as a result of unclear and deceptive labeling. ‘Biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are two terms that are currently in vogue and could benefit from more precise and honest labeling. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but compostable materials are always biodegradable, whereas the opposite might not be true. What are the distinctions?
What Is Biodegradable?
The two words are frequently used interchangeably and can lead to confusion, as both refer to materials or products that are broken down by natural processes. Biodegradability describes an item that can be decomposed into its fundamental elements by one of several biological processes.
Many landfill sites are not biodegradation-optimized, as they lack light and oxygen, two key components. The time required to biodegrade varies based on the material and the oxygen, water, light, and temperature input variables. Corporate greenwashing and misunderstanding are two potential pitfalls of using the term biodegradable.
What Is the Meaning of Compostable?
Compostable things can be decomposed into nutrient-rich fertilizers if they are decomposed naturally. By infusing the ground with nutrients from organic waste (coffee grounds, food scraps, and garden trimmings, for example), compost benefits the environment both indirectly by diverting greenhouse gas-emitting materials away from landfills, which would otherwise receive them, and directly.
Composting requires specific, usually human-induced conditions to function properly. Aeration is the most common method of composting on both an industrial and consumer level. Here, green matter (such as food waste) and brown matter (such as leaves) are combined with oxygen to aid decomposition. In commercial composting, higher temperatures are utilized to speed up the process.
An anaerobic composting process can take place at home in a bokashi bin, for example. The common denominator in composting, and the factor that distinguishes composting from biodegradable products, is that composting not only eliminates waste from landfills but also produces an environmentally valuable output—compost.
Are bioplastics, which are manufactured from renewable plant sources, a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastics? Are they as environmentally friendly as they are purported to be?
The creation of biodegradable and compostable plastics (bioplastic) has created another layer of confusion regarding the rush for more environmentally friendly products. As companies seek to meet consumers’ rising demands for environmentally friendly materials, there is a real danger that such materials will not be viable or even dangerous.
Bioplastic items (we see them in cutlery, straws, and containers, for example) bearing the words ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable’ require a commercial facility to properly break down. This is a significant disadvantage when compared to the ease and symbiosis of backyard composting.
In spite of the fact that bioplastics degrade rapidly, claiming that they are a permanent solution is a myth. Even if these goods are still better than conventional plastics, we should not discount the fact that they will most likely end up in a landfill rather than in an industrial composting facility. When we consider that these items are produced from fossil resources and bio-based materials, we must realize that they often result in large lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. Bioplastics are not a magic wand.
Is compostable or biodegradable better?
Compostable and biodegradable products can both be helpful, but we should be aware that comparing them is not particularly helpful, except in dispelling the public’s belief in their conflation.
There are several products made from compostable raw materials (e.g. mushroom packaging) that are cleverly reimagined to appear inorganic, but many cannot and should not. Compostable products should be classified separately from biodegradable ones, as they can’t be compared in the same sense.
There is no question that sending biodegradable waste to a landfill is a less preferable option than composting. However, compostable items have drawbacks as well. Composting is not always an option, even if something can be composted. Even though composting is a sustainable process in its purest form, we must work to reduce it as well, if possible.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) provides a Food Recovery Hierarchy consisting of four preferable steps. We should first try to reduce the amount of wasted food and then direct it to those in need before composting it, for example.
Compostable materials may achieve a sort of closed-loop system for organic waste, but biodegradable materials are almost certain to have a detrimental impact on the environment as they decompose.
Comparing marketing of biodegradable and compostable products.
Consumers have been persuaded that biodegradable or compostable items are superior to their predecessors, so they turn to them for everyday items like biodegradable or compostable plastic shopping bags or baby wipes. The truth that these products may only be processed at industrial facilities is downplayed on the packaging, in particular.
Consumers must also acknowledge that these items are still wasteful; we should rely on reusable bags and wipes. Furthermore, such items are often packaged in single-use plastic packaging. It is important for consumers to examine the product packaging to see if the item can be composted at home or not. It’s also difficult for consumers to decipher between third-party certifications and a company’s own environmental proclamations, according to research.
Materials – The future of zero waste.
An item-free system, also called a circular economy can be achieved through zero-waste manufacturing processes if the zero-waste movement is successful. Organic, compostable materials are inherently predisposed to a circular economy, whereas non-organic, biodegradable substances are not.
Compostable and biodegradable bioplastic materials have boosted the popularity of these terms in the business world, and although bioplastics are an improvement on their conventional counterparts, we must remember that they need industrial facilities to compost or biodegrade them. Furthermore, corporations are not above paying lip service to sustainability by labeling a product biodegradable or compostable without third-party validation.