Compostable vs Biodegradable vs Traditional - What’s The Difference?

October 15, 2021

What actually is plastic?

Starting with a few basics. Plastic consists of big chemical units called polymers which are traditionally made from fossil-fuel based sources (like petroleum). However plastics can also be produced from sources such as plants. These plastics are known as ‘bio-based’ plastics.

What a plastic is made of impacts its carbon footprint. When a fossil-fuel based plastic degrades, it adds new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. With bio-based plastic, it cycles the carbon that was removed from the atmosphere when the plant it is made from grew, making it a carbon neutral process.

Many standard plastic products can be recycled and those that can’t be recycled end up in landfill.

So what does biodegradable mean?

So here’s the thing - all plastic is technically biodegradable (meaning that it breaks down given the right environment and presence of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi).

However how long this takes and what toxins they leave behind varies greatly. Here is a break down (pun intended) of the different types of plastics that are referred to as biodegradable or compostable:

Biodegradable plastics - Often plastics referred to as biodegradable are standard plastics that contain an enzyme that allows the plastic to break quickly into small particles, however these small particles can still take sometimes 400+ years to completely biodegrade. These small plastic particles are called micro plastics. It is much easier for micro plastics to end up in waterways, oceans and food chains (including our own), causing damage to the environment, wildlife and potentially human health.

Commercial Compostable Plastics - Are plastics that are specifically designed for the composting environment. These plastics are created to ensure they break down within a set period of time within a controlled compositing environment with the right balance of heat, oxygen and miobiobes.

Home Compostable Plastics - Are plastics that are designed to decompose in a home compostable environment where things like available heat, oxygen and microorganisms can vary. These are tested to ensure the efficiency by which they break down in this environment and to ensure that they leave no toxic residue once composted.

So how can we safely dispose of plastics?

  1. Traditional plastics - The first approach with plastic is to refuse it where possible. Finding no-plastic or reusable alternatives. If you can reuse or repurpose it, that is a great option. If you can recycle it, ensure that it is clean and able to be easily processed by your local recycling facility (be sure to check your local facilities requirements as these can vary).
  2. Biodegradable plastics need to degrade in a controlled environment to ensure that they break down efficiently, don't cause micro pollutants and don't release toxins into the environment. Look for commercial composting facilities in your areas and if there isn’t one, approach your local council about if they plan to set one up. These facilities are going to be an integral part of how we manage our ongoing waste issues
  3. Commercially compostable plastics are designed to break down effectively in a controlled compost environment (with the right amount of heat, oxygen and microorganisms). These products need to go to a commercial composting facility in order to effectively break down efficiently.
  4. Home compostable plastics are on the other hand designed to effectively break down in a home compost. Look for brands like Compostic that are tested to ensure that they break down efficiently, don’t contain any conventional plastic or leave behind any toxins but instead nutrient rich soil from which to grow new plants.

Plastic has become such an ingrained part of our daily lives that making a switch to an option that not only reduces our impact, but is at the same time convenient, can be hard to find. Our mission at Compostic is to help you make a difference by providing a home compostable alternative that makes eradicating plastic from your kitchen and life, just that much easier.

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