Essentials in Sustainability – biodegradable vs degradable vs compostable 

Happy Friday Everyone!

I’ve been a little wrapped up in a few projects this week and last, and I think I over did it a little, putting my back out… So, I’m stuck in bed and since and haven’t had the chance to write to you guys, there is no time like the present!

The other day I was speaking with someone who asked me the difference between compostable and biodegradable materials and it inspired me to write this Essentials post! We hear these terms on commericals, on products we buy and even in municipal literature, but what is the difference between compostable and biodegradable and degradable material? 

Limit your waste by shopping smart

I’ll give you guys the quick and dirty run down so you know what to look for in the future!

Degradable – this term will normally be applied to petroleum based products (meaning plastics.) These plastics may breakdown into smaller pieces, but not into anything that is biomass or carbon. For example photodegradable plastics simply breakdown under UV raditation into smaller and smaller pieces like sand. The problem is that these microplastics are that in marine environments crustaceans, fish and seabirds can’t tell the difference sometimes between something edible or plastic. As a result it can ultimately starve these animals and or have been found entering our foodchain via seafood. Just another reminder that just because our garbage is “away” doesn’t mean that it is gone. 

Most plastics degrade but don’t biodegrade (even some bioplastics)

Biodegradable – this term means that this material can be metabolically broken down by microorganisms- meaning it can be eaten by microorganisms and pooped out as usable carbon once again. This is great, but there are some caveats with this term. Biodegradable materials may take years or decades to breakdown depending on the environment it is placed in. For example, if you are buying biodegradable pet waste bags, but then placing them in a plastic garbage bag which is then buried in a landfill without being exposed to oxygen or water, that little baggie is hermetically sealed and will not biodegrade rendering the effort useless.

Instead of tossing that plastic lid, recycle it so it has a new life

Compostable – this term means that this material can be metabolically broken down by microorganisms and pooped out as usable carbon once again. The difference between compostable and biodegradable materials are that the materials must breakdown into CO2 and water without leaving hazardous chemical residues within a reasonable amount of time. That’s the caveat. Who determines what is reasonable differs greatly depending on if the compost is in a backyard composter, out in nature or in a compostinf facility.

So what do we know? Well that plastics are basically going to be around forever in the oceans unless we responsibly deal with them… My suggestion as always is to look for ways to reduce your reliance on one-time-use plastics. 

Bring your own bags shopping (yes even clothing shopping-even if it means you have to buy a nice one), stop using plastic produce bags (1.) you wash your produce anyway so you don’t need them for single items and 2.) reusable ones are great for multiples of the same item) and lastly invest in some compact travel cutlery and straws to avoid spur of the moment iced latte and snack garbage!

Cheers you guys,


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