What’s the difference between Compostable, Biodegradable and Oxo-degradable?

Gary Tee, UK Sales Director at TIPA® tests home compostable produce bags for Waitrose Duchy organic bananas in his own home composter.

What's the Difference?

Composting and biodegradation both involve natural degradation or the breakdown of organic matter into earth through digestion by microorganisms, though they are not interchangeable terms. Oxo-degradable plastics include additives that chemically breakdown plastic over time, but cannot be digested by microorganisms.

Environmentally-friendly product packaging emerged out of a need to create packaging solutions that do not create the same level of waste and toxicity that synthetic materials, such as conventional plastic, are known to create. Compostable, biodegradable, and oxo-degradable are commonly-used terms in conversations surrounding sustainability initiatives for packaging materials—but what is the difference?

What is the difference in terms when packaging properties are described as “Compostable” or “Biodegradable”? Do oxo-degradable plastics fall into the category of eco-friendly packaging at all?

This guide will answer which term you should look for on your eco-friendly packaging.

Fully compostable packaging designed and produced by TIPA®. Picture: The Happy Pear
Fully compostable packaging designed and produced by TIPA®. Picture: The Happy Pear

What is 'Compostable'?

If a material is compostable, it means that under composting conditions (heat, humidity, oxygen, & the presence of microorganisms) it will break down to CO2, water, and a nutrient-rich compost within a specific time frame.

Why is ‘compostable’ better than ‘biodegradable’?

If your sustainable packaging is labeled ‘compostable’, you can be sure that it will disintegrate within—at most—180 days under compost conditions. It is similar to the way food and garden waste is broken down by microorganisms and disintegrates  and leaves no toxic residues.

Why compostable matters

Flexible plastic packaging waste is often too contaminated with food waste to be suitable for recycling and is ultimately sent for incineration or to landfill. This is where compostable packaging comes in. Not only would landfill and incineration be avoided, but the compost produced would return organic matter to the soil.

“If packaging waste can integrate into the organic waste system and be used as compost (nutrient-rich soil) for the next generation of plants, then waste has a circular, more practical and even ‘down-to-earth’ purpose for the market,” says Daphna Nissenbaum, Co-Founder and CEO of TIPA®.

What is the difference between home and industrial or commercial composters?

Home composters have a lower mass, and are generally exposed to ambient temperatures, or the temperature of their environment. Under these conditions, compostable materials will disintegrate within 180 days (the time in which it must disintegrate to be certified home compostable).  

 

Commercial or industrial composters have a much larger mass of organic material, and therefore, more heat is generated from industrial composters (45-60 C), which accelerates biodegradation. Because of this, the same compostable materials will generally disintegrate within 90 days in commercial compost, around half of the time it would take in a home compost.

How Do I Know My Package is Compostable?

When searching for products wrapped in compostable packaging, like pantry items such as organic granola in compostable pouches, make sure that the product comes from a certified compostable packaging source. Look for a certified Compostable Logo, so you can buy with confidence knowing that packaging is proven to break down quickly, completely and safely with no toxic residues left behind that could destroy the value of the finished compost.

Products labeled ‘compostable’ are specifically designed to degrade in a compost system and can be composted with food waste and other certified compostable wares including takeout containers, food packaging, cups, and plates.

Where Can I Compost Compostable Packaging?

If you do not already have a compost collection service where you live, you can lobby your local and state authorities asking for funding to be allocated for industrial, commercial, or community compost. If your compostable packaging comes with a home compostable logo, you can place it in your home compost (learn how to start one with our blog post, Going Back to Basics: How to Start Your Home Compost).

If you don’t see compostable packaging when you are shopping, you can ask your store manager for more sustainably-packed options or a full, plastic-free aisle, which includes compostable plastics like TIPA®. Supermarkets are eager to hear your feedback, and more often than not, you will soon see products you are looking for on shelves.

Today, it is possible to have fully functional, consumer-friendly compostable packages for all your flexible packaging needs – for your fresh produce, grains, coffee beans, tea bags, snacks, apparel and even zipped-bags for daily storage. So why buy conventional plastic?

Fully compostable packaging designed and produced by TIPA®. Picture: Farma Cultura

What is 'Biodegradable'?

The term ‘biodegradable’ represents a process, but not necessarily under what conditions or time frame a product will disintegrate and degrade.

What is the problem with using 'Biodegradable' products?

The problem with the term ‘Biodegradable’ is that it is a vague term, without a defined timescale or conditions. As a result, many things that will not, in practice, ‘biodegrade’ can be labeled ‘biodegradable’. Technically, all naturally occurring organic compounds can be biodegradable under the right conditions, and will decompose over a certain period of time, but that time could be hundreds or thousands of years. For example, wood is biodegradable, but wooden structures don’t break down and can stand for generations.

In order to avoid confusion for consumers and industrial compost digesters, regulatory bodies all over the world have begun to limit or ban the use of “biodegradable” as a way to label packaging in favor of the term “compostable,” which better describes what one can expect at the end-of-life of that packaging, as well as when.

What are Oxo-degradable Plastics?

Oxo-degradable products are made from conventional plastics and supplemented with specific additives in order to break down plastics into little pieces, but that’s where it stops. It will never fully biodegrade because microorganisms do not recognize the synthetic monomers,  and therefore do not digest them.

Like conventional plastic, oxo-degradable and some biodegradable plastics will become small pieces of plastic, eventually disintegrating into harmful microplastics.
Like conventional plastic, oxo-degradable and some biodegradable plastics will become small pieces of plastic, eventually disintegrating into harmful microplastics.

What is the problem with Oxo-degradable plastics?

Of major concern is that significant evidence suggests that oxo-degradable plastics fragment into small pieces, contributing to microplastics pollution

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative together has published a statement calling for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging. 150 organizations have joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation call for a ban.

Eli Lancry, phD is VP of Technology for TIPA®.

His background includes a Ph.D. and B.Sc. in Physical Chemistry from Bar-Ilan University.

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