Compostable Vs. Biodegradable: Same Same Or Different?

Compostable Vs. Biodegradable: Same Same Or Different?

Many consumers encounter products labeled as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ and find themselves uncertain about what these terms truly signify. This confusion is common, and for good reason – while they share similarities, they carry distinct meanings.

Biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Every compostable item is biodegradable, yet not all biodegradable items are compostable.

The increasing popularity of sustainable products is promising, but the terminology surrounding them isn't always crystal clear. Understanding the nuances between terms like compostable and biodegradable is crucial for making informed, eco-conscious choices.

Both brands and consumers alike benefit from grasping these distinctions, ensuring that sustainability efforts are accurately communicated and practiced.

Understanding Compostable Products

Compostable materials undergo decomposition into nutrient-rich soil under specific conditions, typically within a designated time frame. This process, known as composting, not only returns organic carbon to the earth but also helps mitigate methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

Simple composting can be accomplished with everyday items like food waste, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and tea grounds, either in a home composting system or at a composting facility.

However, more intricate products such as bioplastic ‘compostable’ containers, bags, utensils, and cutlery require the resources of an industrial composting facility to break down effectively.

Breaking Down Biodegradable Products

Biodegradable materials naturally decompose over time with the assistance of microorganisms, ultimately returning to their basic components. However, the environmental impact of these components varies. For instance, a pure cotton item may biodegrade within a few months, offering environmental benefits, while synthetic fibers can take decades, up to 30-40 years, to fully break down.

Despite their biodegradability, some materials may persist for many years before complete degradation occurs. Plastic serves as a prominent example of this phenomenon. While it does begin to break down over time, the process may take well beyond a century, highlighting the complexity and challenges associated with biodegradable materials.

So, what are the key differences?




Type of Material

Plant/Animal Derived



Beneficial & Improves soil health

May leave toxic residue

Time Taken to break down

Usually 90 days

No limit



Complaints about their actual biodegradability to accusations that they contain cancer-causing “forever chemicals” that make them more toxic.


Food, leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds

All compostable ones, Plastics, Bioplastic compostable containers *


* Compostable if not chemically-treated else biodegradable, these chemical compounds make them harder to decompose and can also become toxic once they’ve begun to break down.

How much time do biodegradable items need to break down?

It can take anywhere from a few days (for vegetable scraps) to 500+ years (for a plastic bag)




5 days - 1 month


2 - 5 months

Cotton T-shirt

6 months

Tree Leaves

1 year

Nylon Fabric

30 - 40 years

Aluminum Cans

80 - 100 years

Styrofoam Cups

500+ years

Plastic Bags

500+ years


So, what's the bottom line when it comes to reducing your environmental footprint? Opting for compostable items can be a smart choice. When you compost an item, it avoids ending up in a landfill and instead becomes nutrient-rich soil that can benefit your or your neighbor's garden. Composting can easily be done at home, whether you have a backyard or just a small balcony or apartment with a compost bin.

When choosing biodegradable products, look for those that break down in less time. Don’t just pay a premium for a product with a biodegradable or compostable label unless you get clear answers on how and why it is so.

The smart choice is to:

A) Choose good quality products that last longer.

B) Choose products that use eco-positive elements, e.g., items where the raw material is a reuse or recycle of something.

By making these choices, you can reduce your environmental footprint while also ensuring your purchases are environmentally responsible.

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