We’ve all seen it: products or food packaging with the claims ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable.’
But have you ever wondered what these terms actually mean? Which packaging product you should opt for? And how to dispose of each?
This article has your questions, answered.
All certified compostable materials are biodegradable in a composting environment, however, not all biodegradable materials are compostable.
The thing is, any material will biodegrade if you give it enough time (for example, it takes around 500 years for fossil fuel plastic to break down). So this claim is meaningless on its own.
Compostable, on the other hand, is when a product can be organically recycled under specific conditions. If it’s properly certified through the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA), compostable packaging will break down in a home or commercial environment.
Therefore, ‘biodegradable’ claims are often misleading or greenwashing, whereas ‘compostable’ claims (if they’re properly certified) are trustworthy because they’ve got factual evidence of their ability to break down.
Learn more about composting certifications here.
Knowing the difference between these commonly used terms can help you make more informed choices about which packaging you use, and then dispose of it responsibly.
By opting for compostable instead of biodegradable, you’ll be taking a stand against greenwashing, helping fight plastic pollution, and preventing packaging from winding up in the wrong place.
Let’s look a bit closer at each – biodegradable and compostable.
The definition of a ‘biodegradable product’ is broad – it’s any product made of any material that will naturally break down into smaller pieces over time.
So, you can no doubt see the issue here – eventually, every material will break down if you give it enough time (around 500 years for fossil fuel plastic).
Biodegradable products don’t need to be made from a biomaterial (plant-based material). You can find some products labelled ‘biodegradable plastic’ or ‘oxo-degradable plastics’ that can be made from conventional plastics, only with an additive that helps rapidly biodegrade the product. But the issue with these products is that as they degrade, they will leave microplastic fragments behind.
Therefore, biodegradable is not recognised by the organics recycling industry and doesn’t hold a certification scheme – unlike compostable products in Australia.
As you can see, there are many reasons to avoid the word ‘biodegradable’ on its own. If you accidentally end up with a product labelled ‘biodegradable’, it should be sent to landfill (just like traditional plastic).
Compostable products are typically made from rapidly renewable, reclaimed, plant-based raw materials, giving them the ability to break down in a composting environment and leave no toxic residue in the soil.
It often helps to think of ‘certified compostable’ materials as a subcategory of biodegradable materials.
But it gets a little more complex – not all ‘compostable’ claims are equal. There are many ‘look-alike’ products out there that resemble compostable packaging, but they aren’t actually compostable because they haven’t got the certifications to prove it.
Making compostable claims requires factual evidence in the form of certifications. There’s only one source of truth in Australia and New Zealand regarding a product’s compostability claims, the use of a Certified Compostable Logo from the Australasian Bioplastic Association (ABA).
Below, you’ll see an example of the ABA Home (AS5810) and Industrially (AS4736) Compostable Logos. Look for one of these two logos AND the company’s sub-licence number stated underneath.
Industrially Compostable (AS4736)
Home Compostable (AS5810)
Any product with the correct industrially compostable logo can be sent to an industrial facility. Check with your local council if certified packaging is accepted in your Food Organics and Garden Organics (FOGO) bin. Any product with a home compostable logo can be thrown in your backyard compost. Learn more about disposal here.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of knowledge or the lengthy and costly process of obtaining composting certifications, we often see companies wrongly labelling their products. Marking them as ‘biodegradable’ or even ‘compostable’ without holding certifications contributes to confusion, greenwashing and products ending up in the wrong place. This is why it’s important consumers don’t take things at face value.
Learn more about composting certifications here.
Some plastics are derived from fossil fuels while others are made from plants. Bioplastic is the term used for plastics derived from plant-based materials.
But just because a product is made from a bioplastic doesn’t automatically mean it’s rapidly biodegradable or compostable.
As you can see from the below diagram, biobased PET and PTT plastics aren’t compostable.
When you opt for certified compostable products and they’re disposed of in the right way, there are several benefits for people, plants and the planet.
At Compost Connect, we’re dedicated to educating businesses and consumers on all things composting – including how to properly dispose of your compostable packaging.
We avoid recommending or affiliating ourselves with products that use ‘biodegradable’ claims, that’s because they can’t be verified and contribute to misinformation.
The term ‘compostable’ can be verified by certifications, so this is our preferred term.
So, what do you do if you order takeaway food or coffee, and then realise the packaging is labelled as ‘biodegradable’?
First, remember compostable certifications (under the ABA) are the only claims that can be trusted. These products have been through rigorous processes to make sure they will break down in either a home or industrial environment.
If a packaging product is simply labelled as ‘biodegradable’, in most cases it doesn’t hold a certification and has not been tested to break down in a composting environment. Therefore, the best disposal method is in your landfill bin. Don’t take the chance and send something ‘biodegradable’ to be composted – this only contaminates compost and gives the whole compostable packaging industry a bad name.
If the packaging product is certified compostable, you can send it to a commercial facility through your FOGO bin (if packaging is accepted by your council) or place it in your home compost, depending on what the certification label says. Make sure you read the label before disposal.
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