By Brian Montgomery
As a restaurant or business owner looking to make some environmentally friendly changes to how you operate, it's important to keep in mind that like many trends and industries, there's some lingo to learn. And the "green" industry is no exception. You've probably heard all of these words thrown around, and maybe used interchangeably. But what's the difference? Read on to find out!
Biodegradable products are most often made from plant or animal sources--for example paper, vegetable scraps, and some forms of plastics made from ingredients like corn starch. What makes them biodegradable is that they will break down through the efforts of naturally occurring microorganisms, like bacteria or fungi, over a period of time.
Sounds good, eh? Well, there are some disadvantages to think about. When something biodegradable is dumped into a landfill (as it often is), it's often buried, where beneficial bacteria don't live (there's very little oxygen). As a result, the waste will break down under anaerobic conditions--creating methane, a greenhouse gas. Some landfills collect the methane gas generated and turn it into electricity, but not the majority. Also, biodegradable waste might contain traces of toxins (think animal or human waste), depending on pesticides consumed and the person or animal's diet.
Degradable products are still oil based, with special additives. They break down through chemical reactions, rather than the activity of microorganisms. This is an important distinction to note, compared to biodegradable, because degradable plastic products can still break down in an anaerobic environment like the landfill.
A degradable product must be exposed to heat, moisture, and usually UV light to actually degrade. Often, mechanical stress will speed up this process. It usually takes a lot longer for something to degrade, than for a biodegradable product to biodegrade, or a compostable product to break down. And, as I mentioned, they're still petroleum-based.
A product that is compostable is made from materials like corn, potato, cellulose, soy, or sugar. Sounds similar to biodegradable, right? Well, not quite. For something to be called compostable, it must break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass (organic matter that can be used as fuel) at the same rate as paper at a composting site! Once disintegrated, it must be completely indistinguishable in the compost, and it cannot produce any toxic material, and be able to support plant life (unlike biodegradable products).
So from a purely "green" standpoint, it sounds like compostable is the winner. But it depends on what your individual needs and circumstances are. For example, is there a commercial composting facility nearby, or do you want to tackle that yourself?
The website FindAComposter.com is a free directory of composting facilities throughout North America. You can search by your zip code, or by a name to find the closest facility near you! Your city or municipality's website might also have resources and information about composting in your area.