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Biodegradable and Compostable: What is the difference?

Biodegradable and Compostable: What is the difference?

Sophie Plowman3/4/2020Plastic-Free Drinking Water

The plastic-free revolution has started and new words enrich our daily vocabulary. We are beginning to see a lot of compostable and biodegradable products, but do we know what they actually mean?

From 2021, according to European legislation, the use of all disposable plastic objects will be prohibited: cutlery, plates, glasses, but also straws and food containers must be made of alternative, biodegradable and compostable materials.

The phenomenon of degradation is part of the natural cycles of the Earth. There are many materials that degrade. However, the time in which the decomposition takes place varies. For some materials it is a process that is not at all rapid nor much less without consequences: plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade and never completely decomposes. It is also made up of polluting raw materials - such as oil - which return to nature with extremely harmful effects on the entire ecosystem.

With this said, in comes eco-packaging, a sustainable and ecological solution — biodegradable and compostable are frequently used. But do we really know what ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable' are? Knowing the true meaning of words is the first step to change our habits for the better.

- A biodegradable material is able to break down into simple organic molecules such as water, carbon dioxide and methane, through the action of microorganisms and atmospheric agents. According to the specifications of the European legislation, a product can be defined as biodegradable if it dissolves by 90% within 6 months.

- A compostable material instead turns into compost - a natural fertilizer - with a decomposition process that takes place in less than 3 months. Also in this case the time factor constitutes the substantial difference between biodegradable and compostable: if a compostable material is in all respects also biodegradable, the opposite is not always true. Taking this difference into account is fundamental to making correct and conscious choices in everyday life. Compostable usually means the product will break down in a composting facility.

Read the labels
It can be difficult to choose truly eco-friendly packaging and objects. For paper, keep an eye on the certifications. The FSC certification is considered the "gold standard" designation for wood harvested from forests that are responsibly managed, socially beneficial, environmentally conscious, and economically viable.

Bioplastics can be disposed of together with organic waste, because they are derived from corn, beetroot and sugar cane. The PLA, polylactic acid, has characteristics similar to the polyester and PET in terms of strength, transparency and gloss, but with an (eco) benefit, the compostability. In about 50 days this bioplastic is transformed into soil and fertilizer for the soil. A true virtuous cycle is that of PLA, which as waste turns into a useful, 100% natural resource.

Bottles, a question mark
Despite the countless steps forward in the fight against disposable plastic, the theme of bottles remains problematic. If the new EU regulations have established a stop to the sale of disposable plastic cups, plates and cutlery in January 2021, the road to say goodbye to the bottles is expected to be longer and more tortuous (although these represent a large portion of the PET packs). For now, a great alternative to disposable plastic cups is Biodegradable Cups, which are great for use in offices, parties and other events.

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