NEWS AND INSIGHTS
The Green Dilemma: Biodegradable vs. Compostable in the Foodservice Industry
As the world increasingly turns its gaze towards sustainability, the foodservice industry is undergoing a significant transformation in its choice of disposables. Biodegradable and compostable products have emerged as popular alternatives to traditional plastic, promising eco-friendly solutions. However, the terms "biodegradable" and "compostable" are often used interchangeably, leading to confusion among consumers and businesses alike.
Understanding Biodegradable vs. Compostable
Biodegradable and compostable are terms that describe the ability of materials to break down over time, but they have distinct differences. All compostable products are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable products are compostable. Biodegradable materials break down naturally through the action of microorganisms, such as bacteria or fungi, into natural substances like water, carbon dioxide, and biomass.
On the other hand, compostable materials not only break down into natural components but also contribute valuable nutrients to the soil during the decomposition process.Compostable products add value to the planet's ecosystem by decomposing into nutrient-rich compost.
Furthermore, Biodegradable materials may degrade in various environments, including landfills and oceans, and the timeframe for decomposition can vary widely. Compostable materials, however, require specific conditions found in industrial composting facilities, where controlled heat, humidity, and microbial activity facilitate efficient breakdown.
Products labeled as compostable must be tested to meet US industrial composting standards ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868. These standards require that compostable products biodegrade and disintegrate within 90 days and leave no harmful residue. Testing includes a seed germination trial, which ensures the compost produced is not harmful to plant life. Unlike compostable, the term biodegradable is not regulated. There is no time limit for biodegradation, and no testing is done to ensure that the product is free from dangerous toxins. Ideally biodegradable material will break down quickly and safely, however not every product advertised as biodegradable meets these criteria.
It's important for businesses in the foodservice industry to be wary of products labeled biodegradable but not certified industrial compostable. In fact, many biodegradable products are not certified compostable. Therefore, they may leave harmful residue behind as they biodegrade. On the other hand, it's critical to understand that most certified compostable products will only biodegrade if they are commercially composted; otherwise, they may contribute to downstream waste.
Total Carbon Lifetime Analysis Impact
When evaluating the sustainability of disposables, the Total Carbon Life Cycle Analysis is a crucial metric. TCLA accounts for the entire carbon footprint of a product, from raw material extraction and manufacturing to transportation, use, and end-of-life disposal. While both biodegradable and compostable materials aim to reduce environmental impact, the TCLA provides a comprehensive view of their true sustainability.
Biodegradable and compostable materials often perform favorably in TCLA compared to traditional plastics, as they derive from renewable resources and contribute to a circular economy. However, the efficiency of TCLA depends on factors like the energy sources used in manufacturing, transportation distances, and waste management practices. In recent studies, biodegradable and compostable bioplastics still have a high carbon footprint and are only slightly better than traditional plastics. As seen on the chart below, both plastic and bioplastic straws emit CO2’s EIGHT times during their lifecycle.
The Dark Side of Heavy Manufacturing
While the shift towards biodegradable and compostable materials aligns with sustainability goals, the manufacturing process plays a pivotal role. Some products marketed as eco-friendly may undergo resource-intensive manufacturing, contributing to pollution, deforestation, and excessive energy consumption. A careful consideration of the entire production lifecycle is essential to ensure that the environmental gains from biodegradability or compostability are not outweighed by the negative impact of manufacturing.
Importance of Plant-Based Content
Choosing 100% plant-based disposables in the foodservice industry, as opposed to bioplastics, is a major differentiator with respect to sustainability. While bioplastics may contain a mix of plant-based and fossil fuel-derived components, 100% plant-based disposables ensure a cleaner and more direct environmental benefit. These materials, often derived from sources like wheat, reed, bamboo, seaweed, rice, bagasse, and palm leaves offer a renewable alternative that reduces reliance on finite resources and diminishes the carbon footprint associated with traditional plastics. Unlike some bioplastics, which may still pose challenges in terms of complete biodegradability, 100% plant-based disposables tend to decompose more efficiently, returning to the natural environment without leaving behind harmful residues.
The chart illustrates the plant based content and end of life implications for a variety of drinking straw options
*Per USDA Biopreferred Website
In the foodservice industry, the choice between biodegradable and compostable materials influences downstream waste management. Biodegradable materials, if not properly managed, may end up in landfills where the lack of oxygen slows down decomposition, releasing methane – a potent greenhouse gas.
Compostable materials, when sent to industrial composting facilities, can be transformed into nutrient-rich compost, supporting sustainable agriculture. However, for compostable products to fulfill their promise, appropriate infrastructure and collection systems must be in place. Without access to industrial composting, compostable items might end up in landfills, negating their environmental benefits and resulting in limited environmental benefits.
In navigating the complex landscape of sustainable products in the foodservice industry, understanding the distinctions between biodegradable and compostable materials is paramount. Furthermore, the Total Carbon Lifetime Analysis offers a holistic perspective on the environmental impact, while the downstream waste implications underscore the importance of appropriate disposal infrastructure.
Moreover, the sustainability of a product hinges on the percent of plant based materials and responsible manufacturing practices, highlighting the need for transparency and accountability in the pursuit of a greener future for the foodservice industry.
In conclusion, it's our opinion that disposables with the highest percentage of plant based content that are also certified compostable offer the most sustainable alternatives for the foodservice industry.