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Biodegradable vs Recyclable vs Compostable

As consumer awareness around the environmental impacts of packaging continues to grow. Companies are starting to notice and take some effort. At least their marketing teams that write copy are! Recent years have led to a growing terminology of rather confusing buzzwords around environmental sustainability.

Biodegradable, Recyclable, Compostable, Bio-Plastics.. But what do all of these really mean?

These terms are actually not mutually exclusive. 

comparison



Biodegradable


Biodegradable means that a product can break down turn into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time. Something to keep in mind though is that technically everything is bio-degradable! Given enough time, anything will degrade into it's constituent matter - batteries, plastics or a truck. Plastic too will naturally biodegrade,....in just about 500 years.

This term by itself has very little meaning as it does not specify the criteria for degradation of the material. There is no regulatory requirement to this term. In what environment will the plastic break down? How long will it take? Are any special facilities required?

 

Compostable

Composting is a type of bio degradation in a controlled environment. Compostable products are made from natural materials such as starch and decompose fully into “compost” without producing toxic residue as they break down.

What is composting -

To be considered compostable in India as per the criteria ASTM D-5338/6400, the minimum biodegradation of a product made from a single polymer should be minimum 60% in 45 days span. Only 4 of the 9 companies tested by the central pollution board showed degradation from 61 to 67%. The remaining showed little to no degradation. The Indian Centre for Plastics also specified it's own standards IS 17088-2008 which are very similar to ASTM D-5338/6400

A key point to remember here is that these plastics (bio or otherwise) require a composting facility to breakdown into it's components. If not they would be decomposing on the shelf in the store itself! These composting environments are of two types -


Industrial Compostable.

industrial composting

 


Unless specified otherwise, compostable plastics require industrial composting facilities. These are specially built facilities where compost pits are maintained at higher temperature. Check whether your municipality has an industrial composting facility before purchasing these products

Home compostable

home compost


Home compostable products can be added to a composting bin at home. 

Compostable plastics need to be treated correctly. If left in the environment or in a landfill these plastics will NOT degrade but will persist like normal plastics. Also do keep in mind that compostable plastics should not be mixed with regular plastics as these cannot be recycled. They can pollute the recycling chain.


Recyclable

 

plastic bales



Recycling is the process of taking a product and breaking it down to use it again, often as a raw material. We all know that we can recycle paper, plastic, and cans. In most places, recycling facilities can also deal with glass.

There are 7 different kinds of plastic. Based on the number on the bottle you can tell whether the plastic can be recycled or not. In general the lower the number (1,2), the higher it's recycling value. Plastics beyond 3 are not accepted by most recyclers.

Every time plastic is recycled, it degrades further in quality. Most plastics can be recycled at the most 5 to 7 times after which they need to be landfilled or incinerated.

Till date only 9% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled globally. 12% has been burnt. The remaining has either been landfilled or ends up in the environment.

In Jan 2018, China banned the import of all plastic waste into the country. China was responsible for handling nearly half of the world's recyclable waste for the last 25 years. The move was an effort to reduce the contamination of China's environment and processing facilities. The contamination of the waste and increasing complexity had made the recycling less and less economically viable.

Bonus: Oxo-degradable plastics
Oxo-degradable plastics are conventional plastics with additives to mimic biodegradation. These additives aid in fragmentation and the break down of the plastic. However these fragments are not bio-degradable and hence remain in the environment as micro-plastics and enter the food chain through our food and water. These are set to be banned in the EU and Australia by 2021.

Oxo-degradable plastics are extremely harmful to the ecosystem and a perfect example of greenwashing.



I hope this article has been helpful in understanding the different nomenclature found on packaging. Ideally you should check with your local municipality as to whether there are recycling or composting facilities available to check where your trash actually lands up. Ideally you want to try and reuse items as far as possible. This has the least environmental impact by far. But it can be incredibly hard to find reuse solutions for all the goods out there.

The point to note is that each of these terms are independent of whether the packaging materials are based on bio-based or fossil fuel based material. Both fossil-based and bio-based items can be termed as biodegradable or not!

So what are Bio-Plastics? Surprisingly not all bio-plastics are bio degradable. We will cover that in detail in an different post here.

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References:
http://www.cercenvis.nic.in/PDF/APR_JUN_2018.pdf

http://cpcbenvis.nic.in/scanned%20reports/CUPS%2059.pdf

https://cpcb.nic.in/openpdffile.php?id=UmVwb3J0RmlsZXMvTmV3SXRlbV8xNTBfUGxhc3RpY3NXYXN0ZS5wZGY=

https://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/09/the-myth-of-biodegradability/

https://www.wired.com/story/the-worlds-recycling-is-in-chaos-heres-what-has-to-happen/