Biodegradable vs. Compostable: What's the Difference?

Sun & Swell Compostable Packaging

Globally, we produce more than 380 million tonnes of plastic every year and the vast majority of this ends up in the natural environment harming wildlife and contaminating our natural ecosystems (Our World in Data). In an effort to fight against this endless plastic pollution, some companies have attempted to transition to new less deleterious materials to avoid traditional, carbon-intensive plastics. 

At Sun & Swell, our transition to compostable packaging involved countless roadblocks as infrastructure for compostable disposal is lacking and more innovative technology is necessary for the widespread adoption of compostable packaging. However, we felt strongly that we couldn’t knowingly contribute to the plastic pollution problem and wanted to be a force for change. As consumers ourselves, we also noticed that as new “biodegradable”, “bioplastics”, and “compostable” materials emerged, confusion around these definitions increased and it got unclear what they all meant and how to properly dispose of them. So, we want to get very clear on what these terms mean and proper disposal.


Biodegradable is an umbrella term

A good starting point is to think about compostable products as being a subset under biodegradable materials. “All compostable packaging is biodegradable, but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable.” 


Credit: Kaneka Biopolymers


The difference between biodegradable and compostable

In order to be compostable there are specific conditions that must be met; "they must break down in 180 days or less in a commercial compost facility, and the materials must not leave ANY toxic materials behind." Whereas biodegradable is more of a general term for materials that can naturally break down over time but there is no specific timeline it must meet, so that could mean thousands of years until it’s completely decomposed. Further, there is "no guarantee that toxic residues won’t be left over". This is why some plastics can actually be called biodegradable even though they will stay on earth potentially disturbing natural ecosystems for thousands of years. 

Biodegradable vs. Compostable

The big takeaway here is that biodegradable materials can break down into organic materials at some point, hopefully not leaving behind toxic residue and compostable materials do so on a faster timeline without any toxicity left behind and producing healthy, nutrient-rich soil. 


However, neither of these will deliver environmental benefits without proper disposal. And this is the catch 22, we need these new materials to move in the right direction environmentally, but the infrastructure and consumer education must happen simultaneously or there will be no net environmental benefit. 

How to dispose of Sun & Swell Compostable bags properly 

At Sun & Swell, our entire pantry collection is sold in 100% compostable packaging. Our bags meet the ASTM D6400 standards for composting. With these bags there are a couple of options for disposal: 

  • Sun & Swell Send-Back Program: Send us your used bags and we will compost them for you. Learn more here.
  • Industrial Compost: In this setting, our bags will decompose in 90 days. To find an industrial compost facility, go to www.findacomposter.com. Make sure to call the composting facility in advance to see if they accept packaging like ours, as some compost facilities only accept food scraps / select other materials.
  • Home Compost: Our packaging is approved for home composting, however, not home compostable certified - and we cannot guarantee a timeline as everyone’s home compost has varying degrees of humidity, heat, and presence of bacteria/microorganisms. Check out how the bags did in our home compost and the general timeline you can expect here.

More questions about our compostable bags? Check out our FAQs.

As consumers, the reality right now is that we need to do our research, but we also need to hold companies accountable to make the right decisions and to be transparent and clear about what materials they’re using and how to dispose of them properly. In the food industry, packaging is sometimes unavoidable for the preservation and freshness of food, so let's dive deeper into how that packaging can be the least harmful to humans and the environment. 

Sources: 

  1. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
  2. https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/what-is-biodegradable
  3. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/are-bioplastics-made-from-plants-better-for-environment-ocean-plastic
  4. https://sciencing.com/carbon-footprint-plastic-bottle-12307187.html