With increasing numbers of people being mindful about the environment, recycling is at record levels, single-use plastic is waning, and interest is growing in consuming products and packaging that breaks down naturally.
While browsing green materials or goods, you’ll often see they are biodegradable or compostable, but do you know the difference between the two? While both are preferable to damaging plastics, they vary in that they require different conditions to break down.
The Meaning of Biodegradable
For something to be biodegradable, it must break down into ever-smaller pieces without the need for additional conditions or processes. It may happen over weeks, months or years, but it should eventually have disappeared. Tea leaves, for example, will break down in weeks, whereas an orange peel might take months and a banana peel two years.
The product doesn’t have to be natural, like foodstuff or plants because packaging can biodegrade, too. Many more items are now biodegradable, with advances in manufacturing technology, such that everyday items are made from biodegradable materials rather than things like plastic or metal.
To be marketed as truly biodegradable, packaging must break down and decompose into natural elements within a short time – usually under a year. The point is you can send these items to landfill safe in the knowledge that, after a short period, they will have all but disappeared with no lasting impact on the environment.
While biodegradable means something will break down all by itself over time, compostable materials will break down completely with zero toxic components (so made up of water, carbon dioxide and biomass) – but only when introduced to the right conditions.
Further, the resulting compost returns nutrients to the soil, which is why you’ll see gardeners spreading their mature compost over the flower beds.
If you think about a compost heap in the garden, it works when the materials warm, the heap is damp, and worms or microorganisms can get to work on it. In this way, eggshells or cardboard is compostable. The popularity of composting has grown steadily, and garden centres now sell a range of composting bins, which make for a more attractive alternative to a heap of compost left at the bottom of the garden.
However, some materials require higher-level composting, perhaps a higher temperature for the break-down process to become effective. That’s why to be truly compostable, a product must be certified to break down in an industrial compost facility, such as one provided by your local authority, within 180 days.
Becoming Second Nature
As we all become more educated in being environmentally friendly, the use of biodegradable or compostable products will be second nature to us. There are already green alternatives readily available for most things, and they are becoming more cost-effective as they become more popular.
By making sure you know the difference between biodegradable and compostable, you’ll understand how best to dispose of them, whether that means placing them in your compost bin or sending them to landfill safe in the knowledge they will biodegrade over time.