It can be confusing trying to navigate the environmental lingo, unsure of what exactly the words mean for your environmental footprint. One of those nuances is “biodegradable” versus “compostable” which are both commonly seen on labels of products.
Biodegradable and compostable may seem interchangeable, but when referring to plastics, the EPA states that while compostable plastic is biodegradable, not all biodegradable plastic is compostable.
Biodegradable plastic is engineered to biodegrade in soil, water, or compost within no specific time period. These plastics can leave behind microplastics when the material breaks down into really small pieces rather than into natural materials and elements.
Compostable plastic biodegrades into soil-conditioning materials under a set of specific conditions. Furthermore, the decomposition of compostable plastic must happen at a rate similar to that of other materials being composted (within 6 months) and can’t leave toxic materials behind that negatively impact soil health. Home compostable plastics are made to biodegrade at lower temperatures than industrial composting.
If the products can’t be composted or disposed of to receive the full benefits of the product, they cannot be recycled as the materials and must go to the landfill.
To learn more about compostable and biodegradable plastics check out the links below:
- EPA’s FAQ
- Biodegradable and compostable plastics — challenges and opportunities — European Environment Agency
- Biodegradable Products Institute
Despite all of the confusion, single-use plastics should be avoided when possible. Resources and emissions are still produced to make compostable and biodegradable plastics, no matter their advantages over noncompostable or nonbiodegradable plastics. Don’t forget to check your local facilities to see what can be composted. For more information about compost, check out our blog post.