‘Biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’…do you know what these terms really mean?
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
Bioplastics are exciting because they can provide an alternative to established oil-based plastics and the problems that they cause. Bioplastics offer multiple end-of-life options (composting or recycling) and a lower carbon footprint in production than oil-based materials.
Despite these potential benefits, there is still confusion around the meaning of common terms in this industry. This confusion can lead to vague claims about ‘biodegradability’ leading to accusations of ‘greenwashing’.
Our Technical Director, Dr. Andrew Gill, said “If a product is already easy to recycle and fits into the existing waste infrastructure, switching to a compostable material may actually cause more issues than it solves. However, there are several difficult to recycle applications such as tea bags and coffee capsules where recycling is difficult due to contamination with food waste, and in these scenarios using a compostable material makes perfect sense. We are here to help our customers understand these complex issues and use the right material for their application.”
Are ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ the same thing? For something to be biodegradable, it must be capable of being broken down by biological processes, for example by bacteria or other living organisms. This is a very general term and does not give any indication as to the conditions and time scale in which a product will degrade. Bioplastics can be certified as ‘industrially compostable’, ‘home compostable’ or even ‘marine compostable’ according to established standards and labelling schemes. Products certified as industrially compostable will only degrade in a commercial composter, which operates at relatively high temperatures and is designed primarily to dispose of food waste. Home compostable products on the other hand will degrade in domestic compost heaps and are therefore tested at much lower temperatures. In both cases the material must be shown to degrade to nothing more than carbon dioxide and water (leaving no microplastics behind) within a specified time period and have no negative effect on plants grown in the resulting compost.
What can I do to help? The term biodegradable should not be used in relation to bioplastics, so only use products that are certified as compostable to established criteria such as EN13432; and use a recognised logo such as the ‘OK Compost’ seedling logo from TUV Austria.
Even if something is labelled as biodegradable, that does not mean it will break down into the earth in an appreciable timescale if is tossed into the open environment. Compostable plastics must be disposed of responsibly in the correct waste stream and are not an excuse for littering. Fortunately, the team at Floreon are always happy to share knowledge and answer questions, so get in touch anytime via our website.