Can't seem to choose between compostable and biodegradable products for an upcoming event? Whether it's an office party, company picnic, birthday party, backyard summer barbeque with the neighbors, or any other group event, you should remain conscious and aware of its impact on the environment. We only have one Earth, so it's important for us to keep it clean for future generations to enjoy.
It's a common assumption that compostable and biodegradable are interchangeable terms used to describe the same thing. Green marketing campaigns leverage these assumptions to promote the wrong choices.
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Green Guide, a product is biodegradable if it completely breaks down within a “reasonable amount of time.” Synthetic plastics are typically not considered biodegradable since they require years – sometimes decades – to break down. Companies know consumers want products that don’t harm the environment, so they leverage marketing skills to confuse what we think of as biodegradable. Plastics will eventually break up into tiny enough pieces so they can no longer be seen. Out of sight, out of mind… and some even small enough to be consumed by micro-organisms. But these “Biodegradable” plastics stick around for a very long time and may never actually benefit future plants. When they get thrown in the trash (they cannot be composted) and then buried in a landfill, they have done nothing to help the planet. There are even reports of researchers discovering 30-year-old newspapers buried deep in a landfill. Some of these biodegradable products use toxic metals and materials to enable the plastic to “break” apart and these products leave residues as they break down. Plant materials on the other hand, are not only biodegradable, they are compostable as well. They start out as plants, and when they decompose they become nutrients for future plants. Synthetic plastics, even biodegradable ones just don’t do that.
My biggest complaint with biodegradable products is that they are usually made from petroleum based plastics and that plastic constitutes 98% or more of the raw materials used. Adding 1 or 2 percent of a “magic” material so they quickly break up into millions of tiny pieces of plastic is not what I think of as biodegradable. Plastics should only be used for recyclable products, not one time use disposable items.
Why Compostable Products Are a Better Choice
Compostable products decompose into a nutrient-rich solution known as humus. As the compostable product begins to decompose, it simultaneously releases rich soil-conditioning material (AKA mulch); thus, promoting a healthy environment for future plant growth.
The FTC requires all products labeled as compostable to break down into beneficial mulch in a reasonable amount of time in either a commercial composting facility or a home compost pile/bin. (Be careful to understand the difference. If it requires a commercial compost facility, it will not realistically break down in your home compost bin.) The main difference between biodegradable and compostable is that compostable, unlike its counterpart, offers beneficial nutrients and sustenance to the soil as it decomposes.
Opting to use compostable products in your next event will give you the peace of mind knowing that you aren't contributing to plastic accumulation on our planet. Use wheat straw plates, PLA (made from corn) or paper cups, plant fiber forks, spoons and knives. Setup trash stations so your guests can throw trash in one bin, compostables in another, and recyclables in a third. Use clear labeling so they know how to separate them. Tell them why so they understand how important it is to do this at home and where they work. Is it all just going to go in the trash anyway because you don’t have a compost facility? Compostable is still a better choice because these certified compostable products are plant based, not synthetic plastics. Nothing really breaks down in a landfill, it just gets mummified, so at least it did not start out as a synthetic plastic.