While “biodegradable” and “compostable” may appear to be synonymous terms, there are important differences. While everything that is compostable is technically biodegradable, not everything that is biodegradable is compostable because there are specific third-party standards and time frames associated with compostability that do not exist for biodegradability. This becomes particularly important when the terms are used to describe the end of life attributes of products and packaging.
The term “biodegradable” is accurate when used in technical contexts, but is highly problematic and even illegal to use in sales and marketing language for single-use products, including those certified and marketed as “compostable”.
“Biodegradation” is the term used to describe the process of microorganisms consuming organic carbon in a material, and it is the name of an important test criteria in the ASTM compostability standard specifications. It is not technically incorrect to refer to certified compostable products as “biodegradable”.
“Biodegradable” is not an appropriate marketing term or claim for describing end of life behavior because it lacks specificity on timeframe and environment. More importantly, the term is often used to describe non-compostable products intentionally made to look similar to certified compostable products. These products are commonly referred to as “lookalikes” and are a leading cause of contamination at compost facilities. For these reasons, four US states have made it illegal to use the term “biodegradable” in sales and marketing language for single-use products.
For BPI-Certified products and packaging that meet ASTM and other compostability standards, the term “compostable” should always be used when describing end of life attributes.
Prominent and consistent use of the term “compostable” instead of “biodegradable” on all products, packaging and marketing materials will help consumers and others begin to understand the difference between legitimate compostable products and their non-compostable counterparts – a critical first step in the effort to send contamination free organics streams to composters accepting compostable products.