In this series, Jennifer Gumpert, our VP of Business Development and Operations, walks us through material terms and concepts that are used frequently, but not always understood. This week: biodegradable vs. compostable.
The terms biodegradable and compostable are often conflated, but there are some key components and features to each – and today we’re going to share what those are!
The term biodegradable is defined as “(of a substance or object) capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organism.” It refers to the processes that transform materials into less complex compounds such as carbon dioxide, water and other by-products that can be used and reused by living systems. Biodegradable substances are generally organic, such as plant and animal matter, or materials that come from living organisms, though some inorganic material with similar properties are also biodegradable.
Biodegradability is most commonly related to waste breakdown in a landfill, and it can be significantly enhanced in fossil-based materials using special additives under right conditions. It takes place under a broader range of conditions and can occur in oxygen-rich and oxygen-deficient environments.
The term compostable, on the other hand, is the biodegradability of a product under specific conditions of temperature and pressure, which also meets certain criteria such as the rate of biodegradation and its impact on the environment, by turning into nutrient-rich materials. In other words, the result of the process is compost – material which can be used as a natural fertilizer to restore soil fertility, control weeds, retain ground moisture and reduce soil erosion.
While many materials are biodegradable, not many are compostable.
Compostability is most often associated with backyard compost bins. While home compostability is certainly a desired form of the end of life, many compostable materials fall under industrial compostability according to international standards. This form of compostability takes place under closely controlled physical, chemical, and biological conditions to yield a specific outcome. Each process has very different standards and final products must be segregated and disposed of accordingly.
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