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Biodegradable vs. compostable: What's the difference?

Last Updated: June 10, 2021

Confused about biodegradable vs. compostable items? Read on to learn what the terms "biodegradable" and "compostable" actually mean from the experts at Grove.

If you've ever gone on the neverending search for green cleaning products, you've probably noticed an abundance of biodegradable and compostable container options. The terms "compostable" and "biodegradable" are used all the time, but what do they actually mean?

Alexandra Bede, Senior Manager of Sustainability at Grove, says "Buzzwords about recycling and composting can cause consumer confusion and are a major driver of our waste problem. If left unaddressed, it can threaten our environmental progress."

Since you care about making planet-conscious decisions, it's important to understand what these words mean… and don't mean. Learn more about the differences between compostable and biodegradable items so you can make an informed decision the next time you shop.

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What does “biodegradable” mean?

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By definition, biodegradable products naturally degrade back into their most fundamental biological form over time, usually within a couple years. The process can happen because of fungi, bacteria, natural minerals, carbon dioxide, or other natural means.

Biodegradable items break down without causing harm to the environment, adding pollution, or hurting marine or animal life. For a biodegradable item to count, it has to break down quickly enough that it won't damage the ecosystem or interfere with plant growth.

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What are some examples of biodegradable products?

Believe it or not, you probably use a variety of biodegradable products on a daily basis. Simply put: biodegradable items are made up of naturally occurring materials and are free of synthetic components. That means that the paper you use to jot down notes is biodegradable, since it consists of natural wood pulp. Once you recycle paper, it can be formed into reusable paper again.

It also means that chewing gum doesn't qualify as biodegradable since it's made from inorganic bases that are resistant to the biological breakdown process. (Ever been warned to never swallow gum because it will stay in your system for 7 years?)

Examples of common biodegradable products include food scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and paper products like toilet paper, paper plates, and paper towels. And since the demand for earth-friendly biodegradable products has grown over the years, you can find a variety of biodegradable cleaning products, including dish soap, dishwasher detergent, multipurpose cleaners, trash bags, diapers, and laundry detergent.

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Are biodegradable products good or bad?

Since biodegradable products slowly decay into chemicals that aren't harmful to the environment (i.e., they don't clog up landfills until the end of time). On the flip side, according to research from North Carolina State University, these products may be broken down by microorganisms that produce powerful methane gas, which could be harmful to the environment.

There's still hope, though. The university’s researchers believe that producing products that biodegrade at a slower rate could be more eco-friendly. That way, a biodegradable material won't release methane as quickly, so most of the gas won't be vented into the atmosphere.

What does “compostable” mean?

Biodegradable and compostable materials are very similar, since they're both capable of breaking down into a natural element. The main difference between the two is that compostable items go one step further in protecting the environment, because they supply the earth with nutrient-rich materials once they've fully broken down (think food scraps like vegetable peelings, tea bags, and coffee grounds).

The breakdown process usually takes around 90 days, and compostable substances leave no toxic residue behind.

How can you tell if something is compostable?

You can be confident that items like fruit and vegetable scraps and things like coffee grounds and other food waste are compostable — but don’t compost meat or other animal products (aside from eggshells.)

Any container that claims to be compostable, though, has to be able to break down into inorganic compounds within approximately 90 days. One of the easiest ways to tell if a product is compostable is to look for a leaf and arrow-shaped tree or the actual word "compostable" on the packaging itself.

How do you compost at home?

Composting at home is a great way to keep food out of landfills and fight climate change. Best of all — composting is easy, whether you live in a large house or a smaller apartment. Follow these simple steps to turn your used food scraps into rich compost:

Step 1: Pick a spot for your compost pile

Choose a spot in your backyard to make your compost pile. If you live in an apartment building or condo, your neighbors might have a community compost pile you can use. If you put the compost pile in a sunny location, it’ll break down faster, but a shady spot will work, too.

Of course, you also have the option of storing food scraps to donate to others. Some municipalities will offer to pick up food scraps from your house, or you can donate directly to local farmers.


Step 2: Collect your food scraps

Collect all of the plant-based food scraps from your kitchen — fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, tea bags, and so on. Find a container to store your scraps in until you're ready to take them outside. This Fresh Air Compost Bin is a great, no-smell solution for collecting kitchen scraps — keep it on your countertop or under the sink, and empty it when full.

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Step 3: Make your compost mix

The two main ingredients in composting are "greens" that add much-needed nitrogen and "browns" that are very carbon-rich. Greens are your food scraps and grass clippings while browns are dryer items like dried leaves and paper egg cartons.

Start your pile with a layer of browns that will allow the compost mix to aerate. Then, add a layer of greens, and continue to alternate. Leave a layer of browns at the very top of your pile to keep odors and insects at bay.

Are compostable and biodegradable items better than recyclable items?

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When disposed of properly, compostable items will eventually break down completely into rich compost you can add to your garden to enrich the soil.

Biodegradable items will also break down over time, but they typically aren't used to grow new plants, fruits, or vegetables. If biodegradable items break down too quickly, they may release harmful methane gas into the environment.

Recyclable products can be transformed into raw materials that can be used to create brand-new resources.

The bottom line: recycling still takes energy, but composting doesn't. Also, because of the chemical treatments that are often used to create biodegradable containers, many can't be recycled alongside traditional plastics.

You can choose which type of item works best in your home. Working toward creating less waste in general is truly the best option when it comes to packaging and disposal.

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