Compostable & Biodegradable

The words compostable, biodegradable and degradable are used often on product labels, but do you really understand the difference? Do you know what to do with products which fit into these categories?

Here, we explain each category and include tips on product labels and how to dispose of products once you’ve finished with them.

All plastics on the market are either degradable, biodegradable or compostable. These categories are often used interchangeably even though they are not the same thing, and consumers are often very confused by product labels, what they mean and how to correctly dispose of various products at the end of their life. The right treatment of materials is very important, so we need to get to grips with this topic in order to live as an environmentally-friendly life as possible.

Before we delve into the detail we would first like to say that after much research, our biggest take away is that being as zero waste as possible and favouring reusable products is still by far the best solution. Even though we will need plastics for some things for a long time to come, if we can avoid plastic and general litter wherever possible, we should.  And where we cant, we need to make extra effort to ensure we choose the right materials and dispose of them correctly.

Degradable, biodegradable and compostable products and processes all include some flaws and can still cause a huge drain on resources and a lot of damage to the environment.

This can all get very confusing if you’re not a scientist, so we are hoping to help make light of it all for the general consumer. We are also now considering how we can help our customers understand exactly how to dispose of the products we supply, because simply labelling something ‘biodegradable’ really isn’t good enough.

If you have any suggestions or questions or if you wish to chat to us about this topic further, please don’t hesitate to email us.

In summary, quickly tell me what should I look for when buying products?

  • Always check the label so that you clearly understand what a product is made from and whether the method of disposal is accessible to you and in-line with your own environmental morals.
  • Wherever possible, avoid putting items in your main (non-recyclables) bin as this ends up in landfill.
  • If something is biodegradable but still has to go to landfill as it won’t be taken by recycling plants and cant be composted, it doesn’t necessarily mean mean it’s a good option. Try and find an alternative.
  • Wherever possible, buy products which are truly home-compostable. These products simply add back to the earth and do not add more waste to recycling processes and to landfill.
  • Alternatively, ensure products are recyclable. Don’t mix items which can’t be recycled into your recycling as this contaminates the recyclable products making them unusable.
  • Do not buy degradable products, as these really do not help anything and do more harm to the environment than standard plastics.

What labels should I look out for on products?

Here are the main label badges to keep an eye out for (sourced from All Things.Bio):

What do the words ‘compostable’, ‘biodegradable’ and ‘degradable’ mean?

Compostable. Something that is compostable can be transformed into compost when it decays. As a general rule, compostable products are made purely of organic materials. If something is labelled as ‘compostable’, it does not necessarily mean that it can be disposed of in your home compost, as some compostable products require very specific conditions to decompose which can only be found in industrial composting plants. Some areas collect compostable waste for this purpose. For many, this option is not available at all. The end result – the compost, is a key ingredient in organic farming and is achieved by microorganisms in the compost transforming compostable materials. To get ‘good compost’, you need a perfect mix of green and brown materials – generally a 60/40 ratio. If the wrong things are added or the balance of materials is not right, you will end up with a very smelly compost and a useless end material. If compostable plastic ends up in landfill, it can be very harmful for the environment because as it breaks down it emits methane, a harmful greenhouse gas which is 23 times the potency of carbon dioxide.

Biodegradable. Biodegradable products are based on natural materials and are capable of being broken down (decomposed) rapidly by the action of microorganisms. Biodegradable items include food scraps, cotton, wool, wood, human and animal waste, manufactured products based on natural materials (such as paper, and vegetable-oil based soaps). They are all able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful to the earth when disintegrated back into the environment. Biodegradable plastic could be made from corn starch instead of being petroleum based. Not all biodegradable items are compostable and not all of them can be recycled. A major problem with biodegradable plastics as an alternative to plastic is that they do still take a significant amount of time to break down, and can take any time between months and several years to break down depending on the conditions they are exposed to. In that time will have the same affect as any other plastic products in regards to litter pollution, landfill overfill and wildlife mistaking products for food. 

Degradable. Degradable relates to a compound that breaks down into simpler compounds by stages, and undergoes a process of deterioration or breaking-up by the action of natural forces (air, light, water) or by the addition of certain chemicals. Degradable plastic is a type of plastic which has been treated so that it breaks down into much smaller matter than non-degradable plastic.  Degradable plastics can be way more harmful for the environment because they break down into micro plastics – tiny particles of plastic which still exist forever but can much more easily pollute waterways and be unknowingly consumed by animals and humans. Degradable materials can also cause major problems at recycling plants when they have been dumped together with recyclable plastics, as they start to break down whilst awaiting recycling and then turn into something which cannot be recycled or used at the same time as contaminating recyclable materials.

How should I dispose of compostable, biodegradable and degradable products?

Compostable Product Disposal. For the most part, compostable plastics will only biodegrade under special circumstances. Heat is a major factor in the ability for compostable plastic to biodegrade, therefore it is not suitable for your household compost. It needs to be taken to an industrial composting facility where it can be placed under the right heat conditions to undergo biodegradation. Some areas do offer curbside collection of compostable products, alternatively you could see where your nearest plant is. If neither of these options is available, it would be better to avoid compostable plastics as you do not want them to end up in landfill. Compostable products made purely of plant-based materials such as bamboo-based items, bags made from only plant-based material like corn starch, paper, and all other items on the home compost ‘yes’ list are all fine for your home compost. Items which are compostable in home composts should feature a badge which says this, whereas compostable products which need to be sent to a plant should feature the ‘seedling’ badge (all badges are shown above). Compostable plastic is both degradable and biodegradable. According to Australian, European and American standards, for plastic to be labelled compostable, 90% of it must biodegrade within 180 days of being in compost, it must be made up of at least 50% of organic materials and it mustn’t leave behind toxic residue once it has broken down.

Biodegradable Product Disposal. Biodegradable products are often made from plant-based materials such as wheat starch, rather than petroleum. This means that with the right conditions they will eventually break down. Some biodegradable products are also compostable, but you may come across products that are labelled ‘biodegradable’ but not are not verified compostable. These should not be disposed of in a composting facility or in your home compost bin. The best way to dispose of these plastics depends on the product, but it should be written on the label. For example some plastic products are labelled as ‘landfill biodegradable’ meaning they should be disposed of in your general rubbish bin and they will breakdown eventually in landfill, faster than standard plastic and non-biodegradable products. Some hard-wearing biodegradable products including bags, containers and toothbrushes may need certain conditions to biodegrade. For example some need to reach over 50 degrees celsius (something that wouldn’t happen in an oceanic environment). Others need oxygen (something they wouldn’t get at the bottom of a landfill), and without oxygen they will produce damaging levels of methane. Many biodegradable plastics such as “BioPE” or “BioPET” can be recycled along with standard recyclable items and can be perfectly integrated into established recycling streams, where they will be mechanically sorted. A common use of “BioPET” material is the Plant Bottle used by some big brands in an attempt to offer a greener bottle solution. Some bio-based plastics can also be composted through biowaste collections and sent to an industrial composting facility. Some will also be used for renewable energy – if a recycling plant finds it is not cost effective to recycle the material then they will incinerate it instead, capturing the CO2. 

Degradable Product Disposal. Degradable items cannot be classed as biodegradable or compostable, the main difference being that they don’t have living organisms as a crucial part of the breakdown process. Instead, chemical additives used in the production process allow the material to break down quicker than standard plastic. Degradable plastic cannot be included in standard recycling, and can severally damage the recycling process as they break down and contaminate recyclable materials. Some supermarkets offer plastic bag recycling and many of these will also take degradable plastic bags. By all accounts, we recommend avoiding degradable plastics entirely! If they end up in the wrong place they will break down into harmful micro plastics more quickly than standard plastic.