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Difference between terms biodegradable and compostable

We often hear about or read the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” — including here at the Native Leaf website.  Is there a difference or do the terms mean the same?

Biodegradable refers to natural materials like food, leaves and plant material that are decomposed by living organisms and bacteria.  When exposed to air, moisture, bacteria and other organisms, biodegradable items breaks back down to elements found in nature.

Mycetozoa haeckel plate print

Mycetozoa haeckel plate print text

Compostable generally means that a product can be composted right in one’s compost pile (garden or backyard) or sent to a local composting facility.

From the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Resource Conservation web page:

Compost is organic material that can be used as a soil amendment or as a medium to grow plants. Mature compost is a stable material with a content called humus that is dark brown or black and has a soil-like, earthy smell. It is created by: combining organic wastes (e.g., yard trimmings, food wastes, manures) in proper ratios into piles, rows, or vessels; adding bulking agents (e.g., wood chips) as necessary to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials; and allowing the finished material to fully stabilize and mature through a curing process.

Natural composting, or biological decomposition, began with the first plants on earth and has been going on ever since. As vegetation falls to the ground, it slowly decays, providing minerals and nutrients needed for plants, animals, and microorganisms. Mature compost, however, includes the production of high temperatures to destroy pathogens and weed seeds that natural decomposition does not destroy.

Our natural, artisan crafted gift packaging products are really simple.  All are made from leaves, plant material or 100% pure plant fiber from abaca (musa textilis), and are biodegradable, and compostable.

Recycle Globe

In terms of conservation and doing what we can for our environment, it’s a good idea to remember the “4-Rs” - to reduce, reuse, recycle to rethink…and to compost whenever possible.

We, as consumers can be mindful of what products are truly biodegradable.  But even with our good intentions to buy biodegradable products, if we don’t compost in our backyard or send these items to a composting facility via our waste collection system, it could still end up at a landfill, where it takes up space and take decades to decompose (since landfills are constructed to keep air, sun, and water away).

And most all….definitely keep trash — all trash — out of our oceans, where some items like fishing lines can take up to 600 years to biodegrade or end up as part of the trash gyre polluting our oceans.

And speaking of the world-wide environmental problem of ocean trash and how long common items take to biodegrade, here is an informative chart from the Hawaii-based C-More (Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education) website:

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Marine Debris Biodegradation Time Line

Item
Time to degrade
phot of jar with marine debris
Paper towel 2-4 weeks
Newspaper 6 weeks
Cardboard box 2 months
Waxed milk carton 3 months
Apple core 2 months
Cotton gloves 1-5 months
Wool gloves 1 year
Plywood 1-3 years
Painted wooden sticks 13 years
Photo-degradable beverage holder 6 months
Plastic beverage holder 400 years
Plastic bags 10-20 years
Plastic bottle 100 years
Glass bottle and jars undetermined
Disposable diapers 50-100 years
Tin can 50 years
Aluminium can 200 years
Monofilament fishing line 600 years

Related: Trash and plastics vortex now the size of the state of Texas (North Pacific trash gyre)



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