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Compostable Vs. Biodegradable: Is There a Difference Between the Two?

Often confused for one another, compostability and biodegradability are not one and the same. In reality, not all biodegradable products can be composted but all compostable items are biodegradable. Still confused? Fret not, we’re about to set the record straight.

Get down to the basics

Suppose an item is considered to be biodegradable. In that case, it can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces over some time with a bit of help from bacteria, fungi, or microbes to be reabsorbed by the surrounding environment — ideally without causing any pollution. Anything plant-based, animal-based, or natural mineral-based product is considered biodegradable. However, the rate at which it will biodegrade depends on (1) the material used (2) how much it has been processed.

Despite their ability to naturally break down, synthetics or plastic-based items like polyester can end up releasing harmful chemicals or gases during their long period of decomposition. Evidence suggests that biodegradable synthetics produce very high methane levels in landfill conditions.

On the other hand, compostable items can naturally and quickly decompose (within 90 days under the right conditions) to be turned into nutrient-rich soil/fertilisers that can support plant growth. Composting itself is the process of returning organic waste to nature, to be reused and recycled eventually. 

Clothes made entirely of natural matter like cotton, hemp, silk, linen, pure wool, and ramie can be cut up and added to your compost pile. 

But there’s a catch.  

They can’t be treated or processed with harmful dyes or chemicals, and their components (like buttons and zippers) should be either taken off or made of organic matter like corozo nuts or coconut shells. 

They aren’t the same

Why can’t everything that’s labeled ‘biodegradable’ be composted? For starters, compostable items don’t leave toxic residue behind because they are already organic. However, certain biodegradable products can take several years to break down and, in some cases, even leave toxic waste behind. For this very reason, several composting facilities don’t accept items that are deemed ‘biodegradable’ because they take forever to break down that could end up disrupting the process. 

So, rather than the biodegradation process taking anywhere from 6 months (at best) to 10,000 years (worst case scenario) — composting, by comparison, takes place in a matter of 3 months as long as it’s placed in an environment that facilitates its breakdown. 

The procedure takes place in compost piles, bins, or other compost-specific devices and will not occur in landfills, natural waterways, or oceans. An easy way to know if something is fully biodegradable is to check if they meet either the European or US Standard - Which would imply that it will break down effectively in practically all composting systems.

To know more about biodegradability and compostable fibres, check out our biodegradable fabric series below;

Published by: Vibhuti Vazirani/ 2021-06-14

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