From Biodegradable to Compostable: Decoding the Eco-Friendly Plastic Jargon
As the plastics industry continues to evolve into a more “eco-friendly” market, advertisements and promotional materials are increasingly using terms such as “Biodegradable,” “Bio-Based,” “Home Compostable,” and “Industrial Compostable.” For the average consumer, these terms may not provide an accurate representation of what they truly mean, which may lead to treating them as interchangeable. Let's unravel these commonly marketed words together and provide you with the knowledge needed to make informed and sustainable sourcing decisions.
Bio-Based vs. Biodegradable
The prefix “Bio” indicates a relation to life or living creatures. The terms “Bio-based” and “Biodegradable” may share a similar structure but refer to two distinct subjects. Bio-based defines the components that the polymer is composed of, whereas biodegradable characterizes if/how the polymer breaks down at the end of its life cycle.
A bio-based polymer is a material that fully or partially consists of renewable raw materials. For example, one of the most widely produced bio-based polymers is Due to a global push to reduce fossil fuel-based polymers, the production of bio-based polymers has increased and is projected to keep rising at a sharper rate in the coming years. Although these materials come from renewable resources, not all families of biobased polymers can go through biodegradation processes.
Biodegradable plastics can be broken down into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide by the action of microorganisms. Minor structural differences play a significant role in determining the rate of biodegradability, causing polymers to exhibit a wide range of variations in the ease of this process.
Aside from differences in structure, the ease with which polymers biodegrades is defined by a myriad of factors that affect the variability of the biodegradation process. These factors include temperature, light, oxygen and nutrient content, pressure, pH, and moisture. A process that controls these variables to encourage biodegradation is referred to as composting. Two main definitions define the ease with which a polymer can be biodegraded through composting: industrial compostable and home compostable.
Industrial Compostable vs. Home Compostable
Industrial composting, also known as commercial composting, is a large-scale operation involving strict schedules of rotating massive compost piles with heavy machinery to provide the required conditions to break down biodegradable polymers. This process relies on constantly turning or rotating of piles of compostable materials to provide the aeration and high temperatures that induce degradation. This method excels at breaking down the material entirely and in a shorter period than home composting. The fully broken-down compost can be sold back into the market, making this process less costly.
Home composting is a less effective, more time-consuming process than industrial composting. Although this method can break down biodegradable plastics, the proper conditions are much harder to meet. This is due to a variety of things based on the structure, crystallinity, etc., of the given polymer.
To summarize the four definitions this article covers:
- “Bio-based” means the polymer material is partially or fully created using biodegradable materials.
- “Biodegradable” means that a material is capable of being reduced to its constituent components.
- “Home Compostable” and “Industrial Compostable” denote the required environmental conditions for biodegradation to occur. Overall, this article should act as a guide to explain the nebulous terms applied to plastics that describe their origin, ability to decompose, and proper conditions for composting.
With the increasing importance of eco-conscious choices, making informed decisions about the materials we use is crucial for a greener future. At Colortech, we recognize the significance of these choices and offer a wide range of sustainable products that can support your initiatives toward reaching zero-waste goals. Our commitment goes beyond just providing quality materials; our dedicated technical support team is here to guide you through choosing the right solution for your needs.
Technical Services Representative