These days, sustainable terminology is showing up everywhere, but what do these terminolgies mean, and how sustainable are they really? Its entirely confusing, and if you’re looking for options, making a good choice is anything but easy. Here is a quick read on three of the most confusing terms, Compostable Materials, Biodegradable Materials, and Oxo-Degradable Materials. 

COmpostable...

Composting means a process to produce stabilized compost in which organic material is decomposed by the actions of microorganisms under thermophilic conditions for a designated period of time (for example, 3 days) at a designated temperature (for example, 131 deg.F (55 deg.C)), followed by a curing stage under cooler conditions.

[Code of Federal Regulations] [Title 21, Volume 2] [CITE: 21CFR112.3] Tweet

The FDA definition is somewhat difficult to digest, so let’s unpack this. Composting occurs when a packaging material disintegrates within a period of time, under specific temperature conditions (Industrial: 113 ° – 140° F), humidity, and oxygen, where it will break down with the added presence of microorganisms. Under these conditions, in an industrial/approved composting facilities, the material breaks down to CO2, water and compost within a time frame of approximately 180 days. When packaging is labeled “compostable” in the US, it must have passed the ASTM test D6400 method (simulating these conditions), which then deems the compostable material certified. Today, we have an array of flexible packaging components that house produce, coffee, and grains, as well as, storage bags (press to close) manufactured with certified compostable materials.

Biodegradable

 

Biodegradable materials are materials that can degrade over time when in the proper conditions, humidity, oxygen, and microorganisms. It is true that most organic materials will decompose over time. The issue we have with the term “Biodegradable” is that it is at best vague and worse case scenario, can be misleading. Without defining a timetable and conditions a “biodegradable” labeled material can take hundreds/thousands of years to degrade. Because there is no current standard to define a product “Biodegradable” as there is with compostable materials, products with these labels can be very misleading and cause for consumer confusion and unintentional “Green washing”. 

Oxo-degradable

Oxo-Degradable products are products that use additives during it’s manufacture to aid in the break down of conventional plastic components.

Unfortunately, these additive can not and do not aid composting. They help the component break down into small pieces and beyond that there is nothing that these additive can do in aiding further decomposition. Sadly, they only make it more difficult to remediate plastic pollution. In short, these additives, should not be marketed as a sustainable option!

In the quest for a greener environment, we must choose products that we can confirm will compost under conditions that are clearly defined.