Biodegradable vs. Compostable

What is the Difference?

Published January 25, 2021

Striving for Sustainability

Global warming, carbon footprints, and eco-friendly are terms we see everywhere. With our planet changing rapidly, we as individuals want to know how we can help slow down the global warming process that’s swirling around us.

With nearly 8 billion people on the planet, trash generation is an enormous problem. Plastic and styrofoam are clogging our waterways. Many companies are looking for eco-friendly alternatives to plastic for daily use.

Ideally, these products are made from plant-based materials and aren’t laced with chemicals. As a consumer, you’ll see things labeled as “biodegradable” and “compostable.” Both terms sound appealing. Let’s have a look at each to get down to the nitty-gritty of earth-friendly trash disposal.

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What does biodegradable mean?

A plastic cup full of dirt. Will it decompose?

When anything is discarded and left to decompose, it’ll eventually break down into teeny tiny pieces. When something is biodegradable, those tiny pieces must be natural, so they can be absorbed back into the earth, without leaving chemicals behind.

Clothing made from natural fibers is a great example. Wool or cotton clothing may be biodegradable, but if the garment uses synthetic dyes, it could leave chemicals behind. We are proud to have a natural color line, which uses dyes found naturally in the environment and will leave no trace when biodegrading.

The actual process of biodegrading is when an object is left to decompose with the help of natural microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Some things break down quickly, and others can take months or years. For a product to be labeled as biodegradable, it should completely decompose within a year of “customary disposal.”

An item’s ability to return to its natural state becomes more complicated when you consider its surroundings: a landfill containing various types of trash isn’t an efficient place for natural decomposition. Many biodegradable products actually don’t properly decompose in a landfill and can even emit unwanted methane gas. Yikes!

Eco-word play

Since the “green” movement began in the 1960s-70s, consumers and producers alike have been navigating appropriate terminology. There weren't necessarily concrete rules and regulations, so products were incorrectly labeled as “biodegradable,” when they were simply “degradable.”

National Geographic did a study of how multiple types of plastic bags broke down over time. In 2015, one researcher buried a bag labeled as “biodegradable” into soil for three years. When excavated, the bag could still hold groceries.

These bags were labeled as “biodegradable,” were simply breaking down into microplastics, which have since flooded the planet. Additionally, plastic bags, while breaking down, can also leave behind harsh chemicals. The terminology and packaging were unclear.

Recently, the code of federal regulations has tightened the rules defining and labeling biodegradable products. According to the updated rules, an item can only be listed as “biodegradable” if it will decompose into a natural state within a year.

What does compostable mean?

A pile of natural waste or compost

Composting is a specific process of mixing dry and wet natural waste to create nutrient-rich fertilizing soil. One has to follow specific rules to effectively compost, and the organic elements used must not have any traces of chemicals.

Finding a way to compost in daily life is a great way to decrease your ecological footprint. Every country and community has different rules, but there are generally two ways to compost your home waste: industrial composting or at-home composting.

Industrial composting

Many cities have a large composting facility that can receive organic waste. Special machines aid the natural process, allowing it to move faster and be more inclusive of a variety of products.

Interesting fact: many “eco-friendly plastic” products are only eco-friendly if sent to an industrial composting site. They won’t properly decompose in a landfill or home compost system. Find your local composting location to ensure proper disposal of your organic waste.

Composting at home

Starting a home compost can be intimidating, but it’s a great way to give back to the earth, even on a small scale. Using a mixture of “green” and “brown” organic materials, water, and time, you can create nutrient-rich fertilizer soil in your backyard. There are lots of resources available online to get you started.

The catch is, that home composting has limitations. Due to any animals lurking nearby, it’s not recommended to include animal products, and only traces of oil can be allowed into your compost pile.

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In conclusion: biodegradable vs. compostable

Digging into this topic quickly shows that well-intentioned waste disposal is complicated. This is partially due to many years without clear rules, and partially due to the complexities of the chemical makeup of “eco-friendly” products. Ultimately, a dedicated consumer should look into the products they use regularly and ensure they know the proper form of disposal.

On the bright side, lawmakers are clarifying rules on an international level to ensure that products are clearly labeled. This will eliminate the guesswork and doubt when buying and tossing eco-friendly packaging.

The final verdict: biodegradable products should decompose naturally, even in a landfill, in about a year. Compostable products can be sent to an industrial composting facility, and some can even be disposed of in your backyard compost pile.

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How can I live more sustainably?

Better Packaging Co.shipping bags

The bottom line is: try to generate less waste. Biodegradable and compostable products are around to try to make our world a little cleaner. If you want to use them, it’s important to check out how to properly dispose of them.

Creating minimal trash is ideal, however, it’s also a part of our life. Arms of Andes is thrilled to work with Better Packaging Co. They create various typed of packaging that's 100% biodegradable, AND compostable at home.

Finally, at Arms of Andes, we have worked to create a line of garments that can be returned to the earth after use. Our naturally dyed and natural white shirts, beanies, and neck gaiters are specially created to be biodegradable without leaving a trace.

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Arms of Andes' Sustainable Vision

A woman leans on a stone wall

Between our faith in alpaca wool and love of nature, we constantly strive to use planet-friendly materials, dyes, and processes to create our garments. Our line of naturally-dyed garments is just the beginning of our sustainable goals. Once used and loved, these items can be returned to the earth where they can continue the natural cycle.

Alpaca wool is completely biodegradable and will decompose in warm, wet surroundings. We recommend removing the zipper, cutting the garment into pieces, and burying the pieces in the earth. As the alpaca wool decomposes, the keratin will release nitrogen into the soil, helping the surrounding plants grow.

From earth-friendly alpaca clothing to a low carbon footprint, Arms of Andes is proud to create sustainable garments that are good for our planet.

A man pulls an alpaca fleece

Alpaca Wool is sustainably sourced, incredibly comfortable, and 100% biodegradable.