Demystified: Biodegradable or Compostable?

biodegradable

The ever-evolving world of sustainable food ware and packaging can be hard to keep tabs on. If you’re an event organizer, food vendor, sustainability advocate or just a person trying to figure out what bin to put something in, we can help!

When starting your journey to reduce waste or create a ‘zero waste’ plan, you will inevitably ask, or be asked, this question:

“What’s the difference between biodegradable and compostable?”

The short answer – compostable is preferable to biodegradable.

What you’re looking for are certified compostable products.  A certified compostable product is the scientifically tested solutions to ”closing the loop and addressing your customers’ concerns about food ware waste.

Why is this so important?   ”biodegradable” products might not be compostable, which can contaminate the organics waste stream, defeating the purpose of choosing a sustainable product and possibly result in contamination fees.

3 Easy Steps to clear-up confusion:

  1. Use the term ‘certified compostable’ - this is important for all vendor  and marketing communications.
  2. Educate your team and customers – let them know you’ve done your homework!  They will appreciate it.
  3. Check for certification  – ask the supplier if the product is “certified compostable” and look for the Biodegradable Products Institute BPI (or other 3rd party certifier) logo.


The detailed answer  

You say Biodegradable when You say Compostable when
the product can be broken down by the activity of microbes the product is proven to biodegrade (not just break apart into tiny pieces) AND

  •   biodegrades in a compost environment at a rate consistent with natural materials, and so much that it is not visible in 3-6 months
  • the end compost  not negatively affect plant growth, nor contain regulated heavy metals above the legal thresholds[1]

[1] American Society for Testing and Materials D6868

A product is certified compostable when a third party agency has tested it and made sure it fits all these criteria.   In North America, look for the BPI symbol or another internally recognized third party certifier who tests to the ASTM D6400, D6868, or EN13432 standards.

From the BPI website

Don’t know if you should trust the certifier? Ask us!

You can also Check out the US Composting Council’s latest quick guide for more info on logos and what to look for.

Here’s where certification makes it easy: they prove that the  product  truly biodegrades and doesn’t just break apart – how?  By tracking the CO2 that the microbes emit when they metabolize the product. Cool eh?  The final compost is then used to grow plants in a test ensuring the product has not left any toxic residue that could inhibit the plant’s growth.   

Here is how to keep it straight; every certified compostable product is biodegradable, but NOT every biodegradable product is certified compostable.

The fact is, certified compostable is the minimum you need to ensure your food ware is accepted at your local compost facility. Making sure your waste stream goes where you want it to requires a conversation with your hauler and compost facility. We’re doing the legwork for our customers right now, on the ground with 3 regional facilities testing our compostable products. Keep an eye out for our Compost Adventures blog line this fall!

Sidenote: Yes, we’re called BSI Biodegradable Solutions.  As a 10 year old company, our roots were established when the need to differentiate between the terms was not so strong – similar to the Biodegradable Products Institute!  As the importance of clarification grows, we may change our company name to better reflect our company’s vision and the higher standards of our certified compostable products.

 

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