The terminology pertaining to green materials can confuse even the savviest consumer. With the proliferation of bioplastics and greenwashing, the understanding of this difference becomes even more critical. Contrary to most consumers’ understanding, most “biodegradable” bioplastics don’t break down in compost facilities and therefore end up in landfill, taking up space for thousands of years. A product that has been labeled compostable means it’s guaranteed to meet compost facility standards and will break down within 180 days.
For the modern day shopper, a trip to the store can be reminiscent of the Wild West, a place where uncertainty prevails and every choice is critical to your well being. Fortunately for shoppers, agencies create standards for the terminology we see on product packaging to help us make well-informed purchases. But these standards take time to develop, and even longer to become common knowledge. Such was the case between the terms “organic” and “all-natural,” and now it is the case between two words that largely determine a product’s environmental impact: “compostable” and “biodegradable.”
Defining Compostable and Biodegradable
“Consumers can be easily misled that ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ both indicate a product is eco-friendly,” said Peggy Cross, founder of a California-based company that makes the EcoTaster, a compostable single-use utensil, made from smooth FSC-certified paperboard. “In reality, ‘biodegradable’ is defined so broadly, it doesn’t actually mean much in terms of environmental sustainability, while “compostable” is strictly defined and verifiable. It’s a similar difference as between the loosely used term ‘natural’ and the certifiable term ‘organic’ in today’s natural foods industry. For eco-conscious shoppers, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable.’”
Nearly all items on earth, both organic an inorganic, are biodegradable to one extent or another. At its most basic level, a biodegradable object is one that breaks down by biologic means, which could take several days to millions of years. Unfortunately, most landfills aren’t designed to cultivate material breakdown; there is an inadequate combination of air, moisture and organic matter needed to even begin the decomposition process. Therefore, a slow-degrading ‘biodegradable’ spoon can look practically unchanged even hundreds of years from its disposal when placed in a landfill.
While no legal definition of “biodegradable” exists, the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) describes it as “a degradation caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued general guidelines for what products can rightfully be called “biodegradable” in the U.S. According to the FTC, only products containing materials that “break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time when they are exposed to air, moisture and bacteria or other organisms,” should be marketed as “biodegradable.” The looseness and inconsistency of the term’s definition makes it susceptible to repeated misuse, and companies continue to use the term liberally.
“Being ‘biodegradable’ in itself, does not imply any apparent benefit for the planet,” explains Cross, “aside from it implying an object will eventually break down, perhaps in years or decades, and become invisible to the naked eye. It doesn’t specify the quality of the decomposed final product.” A typical plastic bag, for example, will biodegrade or “photodegrade,” given enough time, moisture and sunlight, but this contributes no beneficial material back to the soil and earth in which it decomposes.
Because an object is no longer visible, or in its original form, doesn’t mean it is any less harmful for the environment. ‘Biodegradable’ materials can even contain toxins that will leach into the soil; the definition of biodegradable does not specify level of toxicity. The toxic pesticide DDT biodegrades to the compounds DDD and DDE, both of which are more harmful and toxic than the original.
Unlike “biodegradable,” the term “compostable” is much more meaningful because it carries specific definitions. “Compostable” objects can only be labeled and marketed as such if tested and found by a third party agency to be compliant with ASTM statutes. ASTM compliant products must biodegrade within 180 days at an industrial composting facility and release no toxic substances.
Commercial and Residential Composting
Commercial and residential composting operations speed up the natural process of decomposition by providing an optimal environment for decomposition. Many items that are labeled as “biodegradable” are not accepted by composting facilities because they take too long to break down and/or will not decompose entirely, disrupting the composting cycle. For example, most “biodegradable” bioplastic utensils are not certified compostable and are not accepted by composting facilities because they often fail to break down quickly enough. Even bioplastics that have achieved ASTM compliancy are often rejected because they are too difficult for sorters to distinguish from non-compliant plastics. Thus the term “compostable” is used to designate an object that meets the requirements necessary for industrial composting. Composting reduces landfilling of organic matter (food scraps, plant matter, paper, etc.) and instead produces a valuable byproduct – nutrient rich soil. The soil can then be used add nutrients to existing soil to grow food, thereby creating a sustainable, closed-loop system.
“Purchasing products and packaging that are labeled as compostable is our best shot at achieving a net-zero impact. Keeping our limited resources in play in an endless loop is simply respectful of future generations,” said Cross. “Most ‘biodegradable’ products are neither compostable or recyclable, dooming them to a useless and abrupt end in landfill. With worldwide populations growing, history will judge us on how wisely we managing our resources, and theirs!”
EcoTensil manufactures ultra-green, silky-smooth paperboard utensils made from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper in the USA. The ATSM compliant, compostable EcoTaster Mini is perfect for sampling, while the larger and sturdier EcoSpoon is ideal for eco-conscious eating on the go. Their patented, sturdy designs are simple, smart and convenient. EcoTensil products are recyclable, biodegradable, compact and materials-efficient. For more information visit www.ecotensil.com.