What is the difference between biodegradable, compostable, and biobased?

In the context of sustainability, terms such as biodegradable, compostable, or biobased are commonly used by many companies. Although each has a different meaning, they are often used interchangeably. In this article, we aim to provide some clarification and offer a brief definition of these terms, which sound similar but have different meanings.

What does biodegradable mean?

A product can only be considered biodegradable if it can be broken down by natural processes, such as the activity of microorganisms, into carbon dioxide, water, or biomass. Ultimately, the product should be completely decomposed into its basic molecules, CO2 and H2O. If this does not occur, residues in the form of microparticles can potentially cause significant damage to the Earth’s atmosphere. It is important to emphasize that biodegradable is not synonymous with “compostable.” The time it takes for the product to break down plays a crucial role. A product that takes 100 years to fully decompose into its basic molecules can still be called biodegradable. However, for a product to be considered compostable, the decomposition process must be accelerated to 90 days under the right conditions. Since this is rather rare, products made from biodegradable materials are more suitable for the recycling bin.

Sustainable food

What does compostable mean?

As previously mentioned, a product is considered compostable only if it is completely decomposed within 90 days. Fully decomposed means that only carbon dioxide, water, and a fraction of the original mass remain without any toxic residues. The process should occur solely through microorganisms or enzymes. This happens much faster in industrial composting facilities than in a regular compost bin at home. The temperature within the composting facility, which is around 60 degrees Celsius, is crucial. Within three months or 90 days, the compostable product should be decomposed. However, if the compostable products take the entire three months to decompose, this could pose a problem because the composting cycles in the facilities are usually much shorter, and the materials may not be fully processed. In a home compost bin, the temperature is around 30 degrees Celsius depending on the season, and the process for complete decomposition can take up to a year.

What does biobased mean?

Products made from organic substances are referred to as biobased. Biomass is obtained from renewable raw materials such as sugarcane or cornstarch. For a product to be considered biobased, it does not need to be 100% biomass. 40% is sufficient for the product to be labeled as “biobased.”

To bind the different ingredients, we use a biobased composite material made of bioplastic and wood fibers. This is called a “bio-compound,” produced without the use of petroleum and is free from Bisphenol A (BPA) and melamine. With a resistance of up to 70 degrees Celsius, the material is also dishwasher safe. Even though some biobased composites are neither compostable nor biodegradable due to the high content of bioplastic, they can still be considered sustainable because the production avoids conventional petroleum-based plastic and the products can be used multiple times.

Sustainable products: Cups, ear swabs, toothbrushes, cutlery, clips

Post authored by:

Katrin Beißner

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