Compostable vs. Biodegradable: Understanding the Key Differences and Their Environmental Impact

With increasing environmental awareness, terms like “compostable” and “biodegradable” have become commonplace. However, it’s crucial to understand the difference between compostable vs biodegradable materials to make informed choices about packaging and waste management. There are some fundamental differences between compostable and biodegradable materials. Both compostable and biodegradable have an environmental impact and can affect local ecosystems. So, what’s the difference between the two?

Fundamental Differences

Biodegradable Materials

Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi can break down biodegradable materials into natural elements like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. The decomposition process can occur in various environments, including landfills, bodies of water, and soil. However, the time it takes for biodegradable materials to break down can vary widely, from a few weeks to several years, depending on the environmental conditions and the material itself.

Compostable Materials

Compostable materials, on the other hand, are a subset of biodegradable materials that break down completely and turn into nutrient-rich compost. Composting requires specific conditions, including the right balance of temperature, moisture, and oxygen, typically found in industrial composting facilities or well-managed home composting setups. The end product of composting is humus, which can enhance soil health and fertility.

Decomposition Conditions

Biodegradable Materials

The decomposition process for biodegradable materials can be less predictable. While these materials do eventually break down, they often require certain conditions to do so efficiently. For instance, some biodegradable plastics need exposure to sunlight and oxygen to degrade, which might not be available in a landfill environment. As a result, biodegradable items in landfills can sometimes persist for longer than expected, contributing to waste management challenges.

Compostable Materials

Compostable materials require specific conditions to break down effectively. Industrial composting facilities provide the optimal environment with controlled temperatures, humidity, and aeration.


These conditions accelerate the decomposition process, typically completing it within a few months. Home composting can also work, but it requires careful management to maintain the right balance of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials, as well as regular turning to introduce oxygen.

Environmental Impact

Impact of Biodegradable Materials

The environmental impact of biodegradable materials can be complex. While they do eventually break down, the conditions required for their decomposition are not always present in natural environments. Biodegradable materials can produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas in landfills, where conditions are often anaerobic (lacking oxygen). Additionally, some biodegradable plastics may leave behind microplastics if they do not fully decompose, posing long-term environmental hazards.

Impact of Compostable Materials

When managed correctly, compostable materials have a more positive environmental impact. Since they break down into compost, they can significantly reduce waste in landfills and provide valuable nutrients to the soil. Composting also helps sequester carbon in the soil, mitigating climate change. However, the benefits are only realized if the compostable materials are properly processed in composting facilities or home compost setups. Improper disposal, such as sending compostable items to landfills, can negate these benefits.

Effects on Soil and Ecosystems

Biodegradable Materials

The breakdown of biodegradable materials in the environment can sometimes lead to the accumulation of intermediate products that may not be entirely benign.


For example, biodegradable plastics might fragment into microplastics before fully decomposing, which can contaminate soil and water bodies. These microplastics can be ingested by wildlife, leading to adverse health effects and entering the food chain.

Compostable Materials

When properly composted, compostable materials enrich the soil with organic matter, improving soil structure, water retention, and nutrient content. This enhancement of soil health supports plant growth and biodiversity, creating a more robust ecosystem. The process also helps in carbon sequestration, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and mitigating global warming.

Case Studies and Real-world Applications

Several companies and municipalities have successfully implemented compostable packaging solutions to enhance sustainability.


NatureFlex, a company specializing in compostable films, has developed packaging solutions that decompose fully in composting conditions, leaving no toxic residues. Their products are used in various food packaging applications, demonstrating the practicality and environmental benefits of compostable materials.

Municipal Composting Programs

Cities like San Francisco have established robust composting programs that divert organic waste, including compostable packaging, from landfills. These programs have significantly reduced waste and produced high-quality compost for local agriculture and landscaping, showcasing the potential of compostable materials in urban waste management.

Understanding the difference between compostable and biodegradable materials is crucial for making environmentally responsible choices. While both types of materials offer benefits over traditional plastics, compostable materials provide a more sustainable solution when properly managed. Businesses and consumers can significantly reduce their environmental footprint and contribute to healthier ecosystems by choosing compostable options and supporting composting infrastructure.