What's the difference between being Recyclable, Compostable or Biodegradable?

Recycling arrows

The Plastic Pollution Prevention and Packaging Producer Responsibility Act (SB 54) was signed into law by Gavin Newsom on June 30, 2022. The new legislation states that all packaging in the state of California needs to be recyclable or compostable by the year 2032.

Our kids deserve a future free of plastic waste and all its dangerous impacts, everything from clogging our oceans to killing animals — contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. No more. California won’t tolerate plastic waste that’s filling our waterways and making it harder to breathe. We’re holding polluters responsible and cutting plastics at the source,” said Governor Newsom.

This new law goes further than any other state, in terms of cutting down on the use of plastic, and focusing on what Newsom calls a “circular economy." However, many states are expected to follow Californias lead with Maine and Washington already working on similar legislation.

Given that this is the way the industry is going, we wanted to briefly outline the key differences between recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable materials. For example, all BAR-U-EAT bar packaging is certified to be compliant with industrial composting standards. What does this mean? What is the difference between being recyclable and compostable? And what about home vs industrial / commercially compostable? Last, is compostable material biodegradable? See below for answers…

Recyclable vs Compostable: What is the difference, and which is better?

Both recyclable as well as compostable materials are considered to be sustainable solutions under the guidelines of state legislation (California, Washington, Maine, etc). The key difference between recyclable and compostable goods is that recyclable products are repurposed (aka. recycled) and are broken down to be used again. Compostable materials are broken down into usable compost.

One negative side effect of recycling is that it can only be recycled so many times before it ends up being a relatively useless material. This is because plastics degrade to be lower quality each time they're recycled. Just because you drop 20 coke bottles off at the recycling center does not mean they are going to turn back into Coke bottles…downcycling could occur, which means that the new plastic is lower quality and can only be used for certain commercial purposes like composite lumber. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but at the same time is not ideal.

Industrial Compostable material means that it has been lab tested to break down in a certain amount of time (BPI requires it to break down in less than 84 days), to become nutrient rich soil. The compostable packaging cannot contaminate the earth with chemicals or metals. In other words, it’s doing more good than harm and is regenerative to our planet. An important note, however, is that BPI Certified Compostable packaging must be composted to achieve this, otherwise it's simply biodegradable.

What’s better? They’re both better than throwing plastic in the landfill, however only certified compostable material will break down into usable, non-toxic compost 100% of the time when composted.

Biodegradable vs Compostable: What is the difference?

If something is biodegradable, it means that it will “eventually” break down in natural conditions into an innocuous material that is neither harmful nor beneficial to the environment. Compostables on the other hand, will break down and become nutrient rich compost when used in industrial composting conditions. These conditions apply the right amount of heat and oxygen for aerobic bacteria to do its job and turn compostable materials into compost, ready to regenerate our planet!

An example of this is BAR-U-EAT packaging. It’s currently the only energy bar manufacturer to be BPI Certified to break down over a period of time (< 84 days) into non toxic, nutrient rich soil (including the ink). As an added benefit, all compostable materials are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable materials are compostable. 

Compostable BAR-U-EAT packaging

Home vs Commercial Composting : What’s the difference?

Home compostable is exactly what it sounds like—if you have a compost pile, tumbler, or bin at home, the compostable material that you add to your compost will break down and become nutrient rich fertilizer / soil. The problem? There is currently no third party certification in the U.S. for compostable materials that will guarantee compostability in any amount of time or that the material will degrade into non-toxic material at home. This is partially due to the great variance in home composting techniques and conditions.

Industrial Composting
Generally, fruits and vegetables, stale bread, and even coffee grounds can degrade in home composting systems. Bioplastics such as BAR-U-EAT packaging, made from wood cellulose (wood pulp) and corn are not certified to compost without the conditions present in commercial composting facilities. These facilities aerate the piles of compost with things like newspaper, sticks, branches etc. They also mix and turn the piles, blow air into and out of the pile to accelerate the process and promote the growth of aerobic bacteria, thereby accelerating the decomposition process.


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