Biodegradable, Degradable, and Compostable: What's the Difference?
As the green movement continues to gain momentum, many restaurants, grocery stores, and other foodservice businesses are looking to become more eco-friendly. One way to do this is by purchasing and using biodegradable, degradable, and compostable products at your facility. You may have heard these terms before (and maybe even used them interchangeably), but do you know what they really signify? If you've ever wondered what these three words mean or are interested in learning how your business can become more environmentally-friendly, check out the definitions and information on the pros and cons of each type of product below.
What are Biodegradable Products?
Biodegradable products (such as these plates and cups) are usually made from plant or animal sources like food scraps, paper, and plastics made of ingredients such as corn starch. These items are considered biodegradable because they will be naturally broken down over a period of time by living microorganisms like bacteria or fungi.
While biodegradable products are generally a smart choice for any business, there are also several disadvantages to using these items. When biodegradable materials are dumped into landfills (as they usually are), they often become buried. Beneficial bacteria cannot survive in these areas, as there is very little oxygen available. As a result, the waste will break down under anaerobic (oxygen-less) conditions and generate methane, which is a greenhouse gas. While some landfills collect methane gas generated at their facilities and turn it into electricity, the majority do not. Finally, biodegradable waste may also contain traces of toxins (such as animal or human waste) depending upon the pesticides consumed and the person or animal's diet.
What is a Degradable Product?
Degradable products are mostly oil-based and broken down through chemical reactions, rather than through the activity of organic microorganisms. Unlike biodegradable products, degradable plastic items are still able to break down in an anaerobic environment such as a landfill. However, they do not completely disintegrate and disappear; instead, degradable products break down into very small pieces. Generally, it takes much longer for a product to degrade than it does for biodegradable or compostable items to break down.
What are Compostable Products?
Compostable products are made from materials like corn, potato, cellulose, soy, or sugar. For an item to be considered compostable, it must break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass (organic matter that can be used as fuel) at the same rate of paper. Once disintegrated, these materials are completely indistinguishable in the compost, free of toxic materials, and able to support plant life, all of which separates them from biodegradable items.
While biodegradable, degradable, and compostable materials share some common characteristics, there are several important differences within each category of products. If you'd like to make your business a bit more green, carefully choosing eco-friendly products to suit your unique needs is the perfect place to start.