What is the Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable Packaging?

1 comment by Adam Sarfati
What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable

It's time to clear up the certification confusion.

In this article, we’ll break down (pun intended!) everything you need to know about some of the sustainable packaging buzzwords.

Specifically, we’re going to focus on setting the record straight for confusing phrases like degradable and biodegradable, as well as the difference between home and industrial compostable certifications. 

Let’s dive right in!


Good old 'degradable'  it’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, but isn’t actually particularly useful when discussing environmental impact.

Simply put, most products in our marketplace are ‘degradable’. That is, they’ll break down into smaller pieces, some of which will eventually become invisible to the naked eye. 

Even diamonds degrade over time (no matter what savvy marketing tells us).

Obviously some things degrade faster than others, but here’s the problem: even the most degradable of materials can leave microscopic residues that migrate into our natural ecosystem.

For example: microplastics have been steadily filling the Earth’s oceans for a long time, which then hang around for up to 1000 years, entering food chains and devastating our marine life.

So, whether a packaging material is degradable or not doesn't give us much insight into its environmental value.


Now we’re getting somewhere! Well, kinda. 

When you add ‘bio’ to degradable, it means that the product has the ability to break down into completely natural substances. Given the right conditions and presence of microorganisms, fungi, or bacteria, it'll eventually break down and blend back in with the earth. Ideally, but not always, these substances degrade without leaving any toxins behind.

Unfortunately, many materials — even ones with a biodegradable label — do break down in a harmful way, leaving chemicals or other damaging substances in the soil.

Another problem with the term biodegradable is that there are no standards set to accurately determine the length of time a product needs to biodegrade. It doesn't speak to the required conditions either.

So, while this term is better than 'degradable' as it suggests they'll break down without eco-toxicity, in most cases it isn't the end game.


What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable

Industrial Compostable 

Moving right along. 

Industrially compostable products come with the certification EN1342 for Europe, or AS4736 for Australia. Products that adhere to these standards are able to be composted in large facilities, where the items are spun and kept at temperatures between 50°C and 60°C. 

To attain this certification, industrially compostable products need to disintegrate in 12 weeks and biodegrade after 6 months into CO2, water and biomass (valuable compost). They can still break down in your home compost, but it'll take more time.    

While some councils will allow industrial compostable products in your green bins (and all of Adelaide - kudos S.A), the major problem with these products at the moment is the lack of government support. Otherwise, they're a great option and clearly superior to plastic. 

Home Compostable

In fancy speak, composting is the accelerated degradation of heterogeneous organic matter in a mixed microbial population in a moist, warm aerobic environment under controlled conditions.

Home compostable items come with the certification AS5810 and are certified to break down in your compost bin at home within 180 days, although our Ecomailers will break down much faster. This certification even includes a worm toxicity test so you can be sure you’re not harming the little guys, or your garden. 

Home compostable items are converted into compost and CO2, which can then be used to improve soils for more efficient and sustainable production of crops. This eliminates waste and methane production, resulting in the most sustainable approach to dispose of these products for households (and your food scraps, for that matter).

The Wrap Up

It's not always easy to work out which businesses are greenwashing, and which are selling products that legitimately carry environmental value.

While plastic is devastating for our planet and its ecosystems, some alternatives aren't much better.

Hopefully this has been a handy resource to help you make better decisions about degradable, biodegradable and compostable products. Let's make a positive impact on our future together!

1 comment

  • Stephanie Robertson

    These products are indeed very exciting. Thanks for the explanation.
    1. Do these different types of compostability have different easily identifiable symbols so they can be composted appropriately
    2. Will they get cheaper with time? Some of these products seem inappropriately expensive e.g. the tape dispenser at $89!!
    Stephanie Robertson

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