What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable? (3 Min)

If you are anything like us, you’re taking steps to reduce waste and be the change you want to see in the world. And like any new journey, there is a lot to learn along the way. We knew we wanted to move our products into zero-waste packaging, but when one of the first questions was if we were looking for biodegradable or compostable, all we could think was, ‘there’s a difference?’

The quick answer is yes. And as more innovative packaging is released over the next 5 years (major breakthrough companies are emerging in plant-based packaging to replace plastic), we are finding it important to understand the different words used in describing this packaging; 

  • Degradable; this catch-all term can be applied to any product that breaks down over time, which is most any product given enough time. Oxo-degradable, or photodegradable, plastics have additives that react to light and heat and break down into tiny fragments that we know as microplastics. These are terms that can be used to greenwash a product or create the appearance of being more natural than they are.
  • Biodegradable; biodegradable is a very positive step in the right direction compared to oxo-degradable because the material can be fully decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. The downside of biodegradable is that there is no length of time (could require decades), and the environment required and end product are undefined. 
  • Compostable; these materials undergo degradation through biological processes that result in usable biomass, water, carbon dioxide and inorganics at a rate consistent with other compostable materials. Many standards apply and the disposal process is quite uniform. This is the ideal disposal method for organic packaging.

In short;

* Compostable is always biodegradable, but biodegradable is not always compostable *

*Image source; Permaculture Research Institute