Biodegradable vs. Compostable: what’s the difference?

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The terms biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. As we all search for more sustainable alternatives to turn off the tap of plastic pollution, it’s essential that we get to grips with the eco-credentials of the alternative materials on the market.

All compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable.

Composting is the process of recycling organic waste for reuse. It results in healthy soil with a nutrient-rich makeup. The composting process allows organic carbon to return to the earth and reduces methane emissions (a greenhouse gas). The end product has beneficial uses including fertilising crops.

On the other hand, biodegradable refers to any material which breaks down and decomposes in the environment. Unlike compostable items, certain biodegradable products can take years to break down and in some cases even leave toxic waste behind.

Many biodegradable items are not accepted by composting facilities because they take too long to break down or will not decompose entirely, which can disrupt the composting cycle. 

One of the main differences are there is no time limit on when items can be considered biodegradable. It can take weeks, years or millenniums to break down and still be regarded as biodegradable. 

Plastic can technically be considered degradable, but unfortunately it breaks up into millions of tiny, harmful plastic particles called microplastics.

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Compostable products break down much faster than degradable and biodegradable products – in around 90 days.

However, not all compostable materials can go on your garden compost heap. Some products will need industrial composting, and in the UK there are only 170 plants that can compost material industrially.

Where possible, you should aim to choose home compostable products. Compostable materials should not be sent to landfill, because it doesn’t provide the right conditions for them to break down. And ultimately, the best thing we can do is to choose reusables to avoid creating waste altogether.

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