Have you walked through a grocery store lately? Product labels have changed dramatically over the years, and many of them offer words like compostable and biodegradable to make us feel better about our purchases. But have you ever taken a moment to stop and think about what these terms mean? I bet a few of you would use the words interchangeably.
If you’ve had a chance to watch our composting vlog, you know that compost is nutrient-rich soil that is recycled from food products and other waste around the house. The actual definition from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that “the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (e.g. soil-conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting program or facility, or in a home compost pile or device.” The items you throw into a compost bin, the lettuce stalks and compostable coffee filters, can break down into usable mulch or humus, not to be confused with the tasty treat hummus. Compostable items can be disposed of domestically instead of through professional waste services, although some waste services offer composting.
Biodegradable, on the other hand, is a loosely defined term. According to the EPA, biodegradable items should have “reliable scientific evidence that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature, i.e., decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” Almost anything will break down or decompose eventually, but how long is a reasonably short period of time?
Another sticking point with these terms is where the products end up. If compostable or biodegradable items end up in a landfill, they are often not in the proper conditions to break down. Because of insufficient sunlight or water, a product may take longer to break down, or not break down at all, which could mean that it does not truly fit the definition. This has been one of the biggest issues with the green washing of store-bought products; they only live up to their green terms if proper measures are taken, but this isn’t explicitly stated.
Lastly, biodegradable products are not always sufficient to use for composting. This is often found in the case of many biodegradable plastics, which are often made from corn or other plant bases. These plastics have used plant-based material and combined it with chemicals that make the product unsafe to return to nature through compost. An article on Grist explains that some plant-based plastics cannot be composted due to their chemical signature, or how the plastic is put together. However, the chemical signatures of some oil-based plastics are compostable.So what it comes down to is this: these two terms are not interchangeable, but they are very similar. In an effort to make them clearer and prevent green washing, government and nonprofit organizations such as the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) are cracking down on the usage of these terms. They are requiring more testing so organizations have data that will prove their items fit the definitions of these green terms. And, if it is being sent to the landfill, it might never breakdown due to the environment it will sit in.
So be a smart shopper! Do a bit of research before heading to the store, and know what labels and seals of approval to be on the lookout for, like the one pictured here from BPI. Or even better, look for alternatives to store bought items. Remember your R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle and rebuy.