I used to think compostable and biodegradable meant the same thing. Often when I look at packaging, it feels like the terms compostable and biodegradable are used interchangeably. The difference between biodegradable and compostable is substantial, but marketers don’t necessarily see it that way.
When something is biodegradable, it breaks into little pieces over time. That’s all, but marketers want you to think that biodegradable equals environmentally friendly.
For instance, plastic is “biodegradable” even though it takes centuries to break down, and its residual microplastics leech chemicals into the soil and water.
A compostable product also biodegrades, but its residue folds back into nature with no toxic remains. A cardboard pizza box turns into nutrient-rich soil.
Composting doesn’t just happen on its own – it needs a mixture of organic compounds for microorganisms to thrive.
So what’s better? Compostable or Biodegradable?
Ultimately, biodegradable items with no negative impact are ok, whilst compostable is even better!
What about Products that need Commerical Composting?
The difference between backyard compostable items and ones that need commercial compost facilities is also important. Some items are home compostable but others need to go to commercial facilities and require very high temperatures to be broken down properly. Some backyard compost systems can reach temperatures of around 140 degrees but this still isn’t hot enough. It’s not possible to create the temperatures required for items that need commercial compost facilities at home.
Currently, a lot of areas don’t have commercial compost facilities and so things like cutlery, take-out containers, and cups that say “compostable” in large letters and then “at commercial facilities” in really small text are destined for the landfill. I’ve seen an increase in polybags, food packaging, and general containers that are detailed as “compostable at commercial facilities,” however until more commercial facilities exist, these environmentally-friendly aspiring items aren’t any better than single-use items.
For more information on the somewhat complicated compost nuances in LA, check out this article by KCRW, “Composting in LA isn’t as easy as it sounds.” I’d also like to recommend Compostable LA, a residential compost pickup service that I am a big fan of!