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November 10, 2021 6 min read

Biodegradable vs Compostable: Understanding Responsible Waste Disposal

Let’s be honest. While ending the week with absolutely no waste would be amazing, it’s simply not realistic for most of us. Fortunately, more eco-friendly packaging and products have made it easier to dispose of our waste responsibly. Yay!

Of course, while we know hot words like compostable and biodegradable are better options for our eco-friendly initiatives, many of us don’t really know the difference between these things or even how we should be disposing of them. 

This leads many of us to one conclusion: Sustainability is confusing! 

We’re here to end this stigma and make navigating your responsible waste disposal manageable and understandable. Follow along to learn the difference between biodegradable vs compostable and decode your packaging’s disposal instructions with ease. 

Degradable is Not Biodegradable

First things first, let’s tackle the deceiving world of degradable and biodegradable. 

Because these terms are so similar, many greenwashing companies use them to make their products and packaging appear more planet-friendly. The problem here is that almost anything can earn a ‘degradable’ label, but that doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly (or that it breaks down within a reasonable time frame).

Degradable essentially means that the product/materials will break down. However, instead of using living organisms and bacteria like biodegradable items, degradable goods are often coated with chemicals that cause them to break apart once they hit the landfill. 

The problem with this is that we then have a whole new set of toxins on our products and eventually in our soil. Beyond this, degradable products don’t necessarily return to the earth in helpful forms. Most often, the broken up pieces leave behind micro plastics and other contaminating particles. 

While a product labelled as ‘degradable’ sounds appealing, don’t let this greenwashing term fool you!

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

Now that we’ve cleared up the ‘degradable’ confusion, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of biodegradable!

Biodegradable goods are materials and items that can be broken down in the soil with the help of living organisms and bacteria. When these items are fully decomposed, the theory is that they leave behind no toxins or harmful particles such as microplastics (as long as they are in fact free from petroleum-based materials). In essence, they return fully and completely to the earth. 

This is obviously a much more earth-friendly option than traditional plastics, however, there are some downsides to keep in mind. 

The only way for biodegradable plastics to truly biodegrade and return to the earth is in an industrial facility. These facilities have all the right levels of microbes, heat, and oxygen to facilitate the breakdown properly. Unfortunately, access to these facilities isn’t always realistic, especially if you live in a more remote area. 

This leaves many of us adding them into our recycling or landfill bins. Of course, these materials aren’t actually recyclable and in turn, end up posing contamination problems in our recycling facilities. 

Biodegradables in the Landfill

Contrary to popular belief, most biodegradables are not able to break down in landfills. This is because the environment here isn’t controlled enough to offer the oxygen and microbes the biodegradables need to decompose. Instead, they end up sitting with the rest of the rubbish and producing greenhouse gasses for hundreds of years, just like the normal plastic alternatives. 

In this way, biodegradable packaging is really no better than the greenwashing degradables we mentioned earlier. 

This is a large factor behind the ban of biodegradable plastics in Australia and why we no longer stock biodegradable options that are not also certified compostable. 

So what do we do instead? Our first recommendation is to simplyavoid biodegradables that are not certified compostable to take the confusing disposal out of the question. Instead, try using glass, metal, or home compostables options where available. 

If no other option is available, try to re-use the biodegradable packaging wherever possible or send it away to the special facilities we mentioned earlier. If you love a product but struggle with the packaging, send this blog to the manufacturer of the product to help them understand how their packaging is threatening the environment

We once fell for the greenwashing story of biodegradable plastics too. However, after questioning suppliers and our own independent research we decided to steer away from this material as much as possible. Awareness levels and disposal facilities are nowhere near where they should be for this material in Australia and because of that, we now only stock products that are both biodegradable and home compostable.

What Does Compostable Mean?

If a product package has the compostable logo on it, this means it can be broken down fully and becomes a nutritious ingredient for the earth. These items literally become soil that can fertilise your garden and keep your backyard ecosystem healthy and well. 

There are a few different forms of composting in which fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, or even other living organisms work together to transform your compost waste into garden gold!

The Subpod composter is a great example of a backyard composting system that works wonders for your garden. And of course, for those in apartments, countertop composters and compost sharing is a great option to reduce waste as your compostables don’t belong in the landfill either! 

So couldn’t you just put your biodegradable products in compost? Sadly, no. While all compostable products are technically biodegradable, biodegradables aren’t necessarily compostable (unless labelled otherwise of course!). 

Home-Compostable vs Industrial Compostable

Alright, so compostable products go into the compost heap - that’s easy enough, right? 

Well, there’s actually one more category to tackle in the biodegradable vs compostable debate: home compost and industrial compost. 

Some items labelled compostable may require a little more help than your backyard compost heap or countertop compost bins can offer. Because industrial compost facilities have very stabilised conditions at higher temperatures than home compost, they can actually break down items more efficiently. 

With this in mind, when a product label describes that their item is fully compostable in x number of days, it could be referring to the industrial compost timeline. Fortunately, here in Australia, there are two different standards for certifications that companies can earn and each has its own logo!

This can make it easier to determine what you can put in your home compost and what to divert to an industrial compost facility to keep compostables from entering landfills! 

Is Compostable Better than Biodegradable?

In simplest terms, the answer to the question is - yes! However, when it comes to waste, the best and most sustainable option is to reduce the number of items making their way to landfills, period. 

Here at Go For Zero, we ensure all of our products are sustainably packaged in reusable, compostable or easily recyclable materials that contain little to no plastic. We constantly challenge our suppliers to use better packaging and prioritise glass, aluminium, and metals as they can be recycled an infinite amount of times without losing quality (unlike plastic which can only be recycled 1-2 times before heading to landfill). 

We’ve even added a filter to our site to help you shop by packaging preference!

Of course, not everything can be packaged in these options. In these cases, biodegradables that are also compostable are a worthy alternative. In fact, compostable plastics are now proving to be a pretty great alternative to traditional plastics in certain applications as long as you have access to the correct disposal facilities! 

Our biggest tip?Prioritise the word ‘compostable’ over biodegradable when scanning your product packaging labels!

The Biodegradable vs Compostable Debate

There you have it. The difference between biodegradable vs compostable and the many confusing variations along the way. When it comes to choosing your biodegradable, compostable, or home-compostable products, every little step towards sustainability helps so don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t mastered the home-compostable system just yet! 

This article hereyou may also find super helpful on your sustainable journey! It is all about natures full circle, reconnecting with the environment and how every bit counts! 

Ready to swap some of your home, beauty, and health essentials over to compostable goods? Check out our compostable shopping filter to help you find the products that are easily composted for the least environmental impact possible! 

GFZ Team xx 

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