Is Biodegradable Better Than Compostable?

  • By: greenorb
  • Date: July 23, 2021
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Biodegradable and compostable products are just two examples of our widespread efforts to cut down on our eco-footprint while also attempting to address our overfilled landfills. 

Both biodegradables and compostables provide some environmental relief; however, they can have negative environmental impacts of their own. 

This is especially true if ideal conditions for the two processes to occur are not met.

Because these products are still being processed the same way as traditional solid municipal waste, their ideal conditions are rarely met. As a result, you have no choice but to toss them in the trash bin and hope for the best when it comes to biodegradable products. On the other hand, compostables can be broken back down into natural elements right in your backyard.

Biodegradable and compostable items are being produced at a higher rate than ever before. 

But are these products actually helping our planet, or are they just placating our unease about the damages we’ve already done? 

We will further discuss the details of what each of these terms means, their pros and cons, and how they compare to one another.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

Biodegradable is a term that is frequently misunderstood or rather misconstrued. 

Put simply, biodegradable means that it is possible for an item to break down over time. 

This breakdown occurs through an anaerobic process that forms carbon dioxide and methane. 

Most biodegradable products require very specific conditions to break down. 

In a typical municipal solid waste management facility environment, different types of biodegradable material undergo the biodegradation process at different rates-

  • Some polymers are biodegradable and undergo the process at a somewhat slower rate than food waste
  • Office paper and newsprint are the slowest biodegradables to break down fully

What Are The Benefits Of Biodegradable Products?

The problem we’re facing with biodegradable products can’t really be blamed on the biodegradable products themselves. 

As an eco-friendly strategy, biodegradables have the potential to have a robust and positive effect on the environment. 

However, government policies and regulations are currently demanding that biodegradables break down faster than what is actually manageable with the current waste management system in place.

Despite these drawbacks, there are still some benefits to be seen from an increase in biodegradable products. They include-

  • Decreased storage space consumption in landfills and other waste management systems
  • Many biodegradable items, including biodegradable plastics, require less energy for production
  • Many biodegradable items have dramatically fewer byproducts 
  • When handled appropriately, biodegradable items contribute less to greenhouse gas effects 

What Are The Negative Drawbacks Of Biodegradable Products?

Despite many efforts to regulate the processing of biodegradables, there is no specified time frame that the breakdown must occur within. 

Furthermore, less than 35% of municipal solid waste management facilities are equipped to appropriately handle the release of greenhouse gases which are the byproduct of the biodegradation process. 

Other drawbacks include-

  • Contamination (mixed biodegradables and nonbiodegradables) that results from a lack of an organized system being in place
  • Many biodegradables (such as plastics) require expensive new equipment that can be difficult to source

What Does Compostable Mean?

A compostable item can be broken down entirely into natural elements, given the right environmental conditions to do so. 

To create your own compost at home, you’ll use the following list of waste ingredients recommended by the experts at the EPA that would otherwise go to a landfill-

  • Green Waste- grass clippings, vegetable and fruit waste, and coffee grounds
  • Brown waste- dead leaves and other plant matter
  • Water

The greens provide nitrogen, and the browns provide carbon, while the water provides the necessary moisture for the two to work together to break natural materials down.

What Are The Benefits Of Compostable Products?

Composting has a wide range of potential benefits. 

The main benefit, of course, is that it lowers the mounting strain on our municipal solid waste management systems. 

In addition, less bulk has to be stored, and fewer methane gases are released when you compost at home instead of throwing compostables in the trash.

Other benefits include-

  • Composting enriches soil which we need to grow healthy food
  • Composting eliminates the need to use chemical-heavy fertilizers
  • Composting creates beneficial bacteria and fungi

Composting is an effective means of cutting down on your carbon footprint, as well as keeping organic waste out of landfills. 

That being said, composting isn’t for the faint of heart.

What Are The Negative Drawbacks Of Compostable Products?

Composting has a long history of negative feedback. 

For one thing, it can become rather time-consuming. In addition, if you neglect your compost pile or bin, the organic matter won’t break down appropriately. 

It will also smell rather terrible if not appropriately maintained. 

Things will slowly rot rather than aerobically or anaerobically breaking down.

Other negative aspects of compostables include-

  • Improperly maintained compost can lead to unhealthy soil pathogens
  • They are a lot of work
  • There is some initial startup cost to begin composting properly
  • Anaerobic composting practices can still release methane gases
  • Compostables that end up in landfills create a high volume of methane and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to global warming

To avoid the bulk of negative drawbacks of composting, we recommend sticking to aerobic composting or vermicomposting. 

These methods are safer, require less work, produce less smell, and are better for the environment in general.

Is Biodegradable Better Than Compostable?

So, now you know the differences between biodegradable and compostable materials! Whether or not one is better than the other in the long run remains to be seen. 

There are many rapid changes in industrial production, waste management, and environmental politics that will affect the efficiency of these waste management methods.

However, in the here and now, it is clear that compostable materials have a considerable advantage over biodegradable materials. 

We have no immediate power over how efficiently biodegradables are managed since we can’t do it ourselves. We can, however, choose to compost. 

Whether or not we as a society are willing to put in the work to use composting to reduce our carbon footprints is another matter entirely. 

But with roughly 27% of landfill waste being attributed to organic waste that could be composted at home, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and our neighbors.

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