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Difference between Biodegradable & Compostable? Which one is better?

You must have noticed all the different options there are when choosing your tableware for your party. Have you ever wondered what does it actually mean when the product claims to be eco-friendly and biodegradable? And what exactly the difference is between compostable and biodegradable? Yes, we get it, it can be confusing.

When planning environmentally-friendly events, the ultimate goal, obviously, is to be as waste-free as possible. Meaning: there wouldn't be disposable products at all! Understandably, this is not always possible. Let's compare how long it takes for each of these materials to decompose (for the material to break down and dissolve):

Difference between Biodegradable and Compostable

Companies are doing a lot of "greenwashing" to make their products sound eco-friendly.* The terms "biodegradable" and "compostable" are tricky because the conditions where the materials are dumped must be optimal for the decomposition to take place. The term biodegradable, furthermore, doesn't have a time limit. A company can label their plastic as biodegradable because given conducive conditions, it can biodegrade in months. However, under less than optimal conditions it might not biodegrade for a couple of centuries! And landfills do not provide those optimal conditions, which include oxygen and specific types of bacteria needed for these products to decompose. Here's an article testing "biodegradable" plastic bags in an experiment highlighted by the Smithsonian that illustrates this point. Imagine that trash sitting outside on your lawn, waiting for you for a year when you open the windows every morning. Not nice, eh? On the other hand, compostable starts with organic substances and returns to the earth. Some compostable materials will even provide useful nutrients within a short period of time for the ground, in essence becoming fertilizer. From all the options, if we have to pick up disposable tableware to the event, we prefer compostable materials. These plates are designed to decompose faster (within a couple of months) and without harming nature (no toxins).

If there is a necessity to use disposable plates, for instance, we definitely recommend going with compostable, like bamboo, sugarcane and palm leaf plates. For these plates to break down as quickly as possible, they should be composted in the composting bins where you can control the temperature, moisture and other factors. If you do have a composting bin in your household, then this is an excellent option for you.

Industrial Composting

This is probably a good moment to mention industrial composting and compare it to at-home composting. So yes, there is two different way to compost, and when buying compostable products it is important to understand the difference between these two.

I explain the difference between these two terms in my The Ultimate Guide to Disposable Party Supplies

Composting Shortly, composting means breaking down organic waste into soil to help plants grow. This is basically a process that does not leave any trash behind, and therefore implementing composting into our lives in my opinion is crucial because of the issues we are facing with trash. Organic material can be leaves, some of the food you eat, and yard waste.

a) Industrial Composting Most of the "compostable" products we see in the market now require industrial composting. In the United States, there are not many industrial composting facilities. These facilities can handle larger amounts of compostables and also bio-plastics that home composting cannot do.

b) Home composting At-home composting is composting in your backyard or using a composting bin at home. At-home composters either use the compost in their garden or send it to a local composting facility. This is what I do with my business, I collect compostables after the party and take them to a local composting facility and they do the composting on my behalf.

Why buying Paper Plates is not the solution

Paper does break down faster in the landfill than plastic that is right and paper as material can be recycled, but... there are a couple of problems with paper plates: local recycling plants do not accept paper and carton with food stains. Also, paper products are created and treated with the same kind of toxins as plastic plates. So besides greasy paper products not being recyclable, it could be just as be dangerous for you and your guests.

So next time when you go shopping for your party supplies, pay attention to these terms, "biodegradable", "compostable", "industrial composting", "compostable at home", you might be surprised how many items are labeled as biodegradable and how many items actually requires industrial facility for composting.

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