Plastic bottles and plastic bags take about 500 years to decay in a landfill. All those heaps of single-use plastics, like straws and takeout boxes, will continue to poison the soil and groundwater and produce greenhouse gas for generations to come.
That begs the question: are there better alternatives? Yes, of course. Under very specific conditions, bioplastics can break down within a matter of months or weeks. This is facilitated by the materials they’re made from, such as corn and sugarcane, and the composting environment.
So, what are biodegradable products? What does compostable mean, and what are the main differences between the two?
What Does Biodegradable Mean?
Biodegradable is a term given to items that break down under the presence of microorganisms and the right conditions to their basic components, blending back in with the earth. While some items break down without leaving toxins in the soil, others do. For instance, plant-based products disintegrate into water, carbon dioxide, and other natural materials; these substances mix well with the soil without leaving toxic residue behind.
The most beneficial biodegradable material to the environment is the one that disintegrates quickest. Things that break down into organic matter take less time to decompose and saves landfill space.
Other biodegradable materials include paper, untreated wood, and food scraps. Steel is also biodegradable as it breaks down over many years through rusting.
What Materials Are in Biodegradable Plastic?
Biodegradable plastics include:
- Starch-based plastics.
- Natural fibers reinforcement plastic.
- Lignin-based plastics.
- Soy-based plastics.
- Cellulose-based plastics.
Starch-based plastics are created through a complex process of blending starch with compostable plastics like PHAs, PCL, PLA, and PBAT. This helps improve the mechanical properties, water resistance, and processing properties of plastic.
Natural fibers reinforcement plastic is a biocomposite made from fibers like flax, hemp, American Bamboo, jute, and sisal. These plastics are lighter and stronger.
Lignin-based plastics are designed from biopolymer lignin, a by-product of the papermaking process. They have heat resistance and high-impact strength.
Soy polyols generated from soybean oil are used to make soy-based plastics. Since this plastic is made at low temperatures, it saves energy. They tolerate hot foods and are freezer safe.
Cellulose plastics are made using cellulose or cellulose derivatives, including softwood trees as the primary raw materials.
What Does Compostable Mean?
Compostable items are made from carbon-based biomaterials such as leaves, plant fibers, and wood. These items disintegrate entirely under the presence of microorganisms within a defined period due to biological processes. They also don’t leave toxins behind.
Compostable materials are used as manure to improve soil quality once they decay.
Non-compostable materials don’t break down naturally and must be reused, destroyed, or thrown into landfills. They include plastics, metals, and glass.
Residential composting is the process of creating compost on a small scale. Piles of waste are stored outdoors or indoors inside a bin. The compost pile contains grass clippings, green waste, plus fruit and vegetable waste.
The bins must be kept in shade and nourished with green waste, moisture, and proper turning. The moisture enables decomposition, and the composting process can last between two months and two years. You will know the home compost is ready when the soil underneath turns dark and rich in color.
Commercial composting refers to large-scale composting made to handle high volumes of organic waste. The resulting compost is sold to plant nurseries, farms, and individuals.
A typical commercial composting is run by collecting waste from restaurants, green waste bins, grocery stores, and campus communities.
At the compost processor, sorting divides organics and inorganics, and removes contaminants before the food waste is mixed with nitrogen-rich materials in a machine to create a nitrogen-rich sludge. Items rich in carbon like paper, branches, and leaves are combined with the sludge to form the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.
The nitrogen and carbon organics are put in long rows to be watered and mixed daily. The compost will be ready in 3-6 months.
What Is the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable?
Note that all compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable items are compostable. The main distinction is related to production materials, decomposition, and remaining materials after disintegration.
Compostable products comprise organic items or plants that can degrade with time, such as corn starch, PVOH/PVAL, bagasse, and others. When they degrade, compostable elements produce humus, the richest and most significant part of the soil.
Humus has a high level of microbial activity that increases the number of beneficial microbes in the soil, making plants healthier. That said, compostable items have no harmful impact on the environment.
Compostable products need a lot of oxygen, moisture, nutrients, and warm temperature to degrade. The process takes 3-6 months.
On the contrary, biodegradable is a term used to refer to the disintegration of materials into microplastics. Biodegradable materials are manufactured from plastics, starch, corn oil, and plants. These materials take multiple months to disintegrate, and research has shown that the process leaves toxins (microplastics) behind.
Can Biodegradable Items Be Composted?
Yes, biodegradable items can be composted. For instance, a popular biodegradable material called PLA only degrades into water and carbon dioxide in a controlled environment. Such an environment keeps biodegradable materials at 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, all organic material and biodegradable products can be composted, including those items made from starch, plants, and corn oil.
Why Aren’t Biodegradable and Compostable Items Recyclable?
Compostable products shouldn’t be recycled since they can disrupt and contaminate the recycling process if combined with petroleum-based items that aren’t compostable. Therefore, compostable items should be put in their own compost bins.
The same applies to biodegradable items. Some bioplastics can’t be recycled with petroleum-based plastics because of chemical structure incompatibility. However, other bioplastics can be recycled with regular plastics if the chemical structures are compatible.
Therefore, label your child-resistant packaging as compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable to help consumers know what to do with them.
Is Biodegradable Plastic the Same As Compostable?
Biodegradable plastic is not the same as compostable plastic. This is because some biodegradable plastics are compostable while some aren’t.
Compostable plastic is biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastic is compostable.
Is Biodegradable Plastic More Eco-Friendly Than Regular Plastic?
Biodegradable plastics are easily recycled in an organic process. As a result, there is less burden on landfills to hold more plastic. The recycling process will also create bio-waste that’s usable as renewable energy for biogas or as compost.
Biodegradable plastics consume less energy during their manufacture than conventional plastics. For example, corn-based polymer requires 65% less energy to manufacture than petroleum-based plastic. That said, fewer fossil fuels are used, reducing environmental pollution.
Bioplastics also generate 68% fewer greenhouse gasses, like methane, when manufactured. What’s more, since they’re not manufactured from petroleum like typical plastic products, even less petroleum is consumed.
Compared to regular plastics, biodegradable plastics disintegrate easily before being converted into compost or absorbed by the soil. This ensures there are fewer plastics in oceans and landfills.
Bioplastics are made from natural materials, which makes their composability beneficial to the soil. It improves the water and nutrient retention of the soil, allowing for the growth of healthy plants.
The Bottom Line
While both compostable and biodegradable products break down over a lengthier time frame, the latter disintegrates faster. In addition, they both need different conditions for the breaking down process to work well. For instance, compostable items require air, moisture, soil, and bacteria for the process to work. After the process is complete, residual products like fertilizers will increase soil health.
Biodegradable materials break down naturally with time. Unfortunately, some materials will leave behind some toxins that are bad for the environment.
Both compostable and biodegradable products are better for the environment than alternative materials. That’s why businesses need to focus on sustainability efforts beginning with the use of packaging that is either biodegradable or compostable to create a positive impact on the environment.
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