Biodegradable vs. Compostable: What Do These Terms Really Mean?

compostable vs biodegradable

The terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” are often confused, but what do they actually mean? While they do mean similar things, when you see these labels on a product or packaging, it’s probably not clear what they mean.

You might be surprised to learn that just because a material is biodegradable or compostable, it doesn’t mean you should throw it in the trash.

Today, we’re taking a look at the two terms, and getting to the bottom of what they really mean.


The term “biodegradable” simply means that the object can be broken down into carbon dioxide, water, biomass and inorganic compounds by bacteria or other living organisms.

There’s a problem with the term, though; it’s often used on product packaging in a misleading way.

Tthe biodegradation process requires oxygen and light, and when biodegradable materials are buried in a landfill, there’s very little of either. This means that even if a plastic is labeled as biodegradable, it will take an extremely long time if thrown in the trash.

Biodegradable plastic is also not recyclable. For these reasons, we’re still a long way away from biodegradable water bottles, toothbrushes and credit cards.

BIodegradable doesn’t always mean a good though, too. For example, plastics are technically biodegradable and will break down in a landfill, but this can take hundreds of years, and results in carbon dioxide and microplastics, both of which have a negative effect on our environment.


The term “compostable” means that the material will break down in a typical compost environment. Objects like paper, wood, or food are most likely compostable in a backyard compost bin.

However, this doesn’t mean you can throw a “compostable” bioplastic takeout food container in your compost bin and hope that it’s going to break down. While some objects like bioplastics are technically compostable, this only happens in an industrial composting facility.

While a compostable product is usually better for the environment than a plastic one, it still won’t break down in a landfill much faster than its plastic counterpart.

Biodegradable vs. Compostable

Both biodegradable and compostable items break down over time. The difference is in the conditions required for this process to occur. Composting takes a careful balance of conditions including the proper moisture, soil, and microorganisms to properly break down the materials.

Biodegradable materials will also break down over time, but this doesn’t mean you can throw it in the compost bin, or that it will break down quickly in a landfill.

Nevertheless, most items labeled compostable or biodegradable are better for our environment than their traditional counterparts.

The Key Takeaway

Since both biodegradable and compostable materials are better to have than not, the key here is to look for products that are either biodegradable or compostable, and then dispose of them the proper way.

But don’t assume that

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