Sustainability Tip: Compostable versus biodegradable — what does it all mean?
Walking Mountains Science Center
Sustainability can mean many different things, depending on what you’re focusing on. When you dive in deep, the terms can get confusing, and many that seem interchangeable are actually very different.
One topic that comes up frequently in the world of sustainable waste management is the difference between compostable and biodegradable. It’s important to know the difference and know what you’re looking for. We’ve broken these down to help you better understand the difference and why it matters.
- Learn the terms. Biodegradable does not equal compostable. Biodegradable simply refers to anything that degrades overtime in a natural environment, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Lots and lots of things are biodegradable, but it may take hundreds of years. It’s really not a useful term for helping us to navigate how to properly throw something away. Compostable refers to a material’s ability to break down in the specific biological composting environment, and exclusively applies to organic and plant material. Compostable materials are also biodegradable, but biodegradable materials are not always compostable. Keep in mind, however, that both of these terms are not legally binding without proper certification (see greenwashing below). In fact, in some states it’s illegal to use the term “biodegradable” on product packaging because it is unspecific and confusing to consumers, and most commercial compost facilities will not accept certain compostable products that are not certified.
- Check the rules. If you use a commercial composting program at work, home or school, check with your hauler about what can be accepted in your bin. Most only accept BPI certified compostable products. BPI is a third-party certification body, and the seal tells us that it will properly and completely break down in the compost environment. This is especially important for serviceware like compostable cutlery, plates, bowls and cups, which can be made of different plant-based materials, but without the certification can be mixed with non-compostable materials. Your hauler may have additional guidelines, so it’s always best to double check.
- Compost! Consider signing up for a composting service if you haven’t already. There are commercial composting programs available in Eagle County for homes and businesses. Contact EverGreen Zero Waste and Vail Honeywagon for more information. And you can also compost yourself at home; learn more at walkingmountains.org/composting.
- Don’t be greenwashed. Sustainability is a hot topic and many businesses want to be a part of the action. Unfortunately some don’t always walk the walk, and will market “green” products that aren’t actually environmentally-friendly. Look out for greenwashing, which is the “process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound,” according to Investopedia. Think slapping the word “biodegradable” or “eco” in green letters onto the label, without proving or sharing anything specific about the sustainability of the product. Of course, not all sustainability claims are fake, so to avoid being greenwashed, look for as much specific information as possible. A box of disposable cutlery that says “compostable” with no other explanation should raise a red flag. But compostable cutlery that is BPI certified compostable and clearly indicates that it is made of a 100% plant-based material, and information about the carbon footprint of the product can be easily found, is likely legitimate. Certifications like BPI are a great tool because there is rigorous testing and approval required to get the label, which takes a lot of the guess work off of you.
Nina Waysdorf is the sustainability programs coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center and an avid composter.