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Clearing up the Confusion about ‘Biodegradable’, ‘Degradable’ and ‘Compostable’

June 6, 2011

We hear the terms ‘biodegradable’, ‘degradable’ and ‘compostable’ used a lot these days. Many people assume that when these terms describe a product that product unconditionally must be a good, green thing. Without a clear understanding of the meaning of these terms however, we find they are sometimes applied interchangeably as if they all mean the same thing, but of course they do not.

I therefore wanted to devote this blog to help clear up some of the confusion about what the terms ‘biodegradable’, ‘degradable’ and ‘compostable’ really mean and how a product must be used or disposed of in order for it to hold true to the description—and really be eco-friendly.

‘Biodegradable’ means something is capable of being decomposed by biological agents (e.g. bacteria, fungi or algae) and will break down into carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O) and biomass1 within a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment. Materials are usually deemed biodegradable if they break down to at least 90% carbon dioxide, water and biomass within 6 months. Biodegradable products are generally made from plant, animal or mineral sources; examples include paper, fruit and vegetable scraps, and plastics made from plant-based ingredients such as corn starch.

Keep in mind that ‘biodegradable’ does not necessarily mean ‘environmentally friendly’. It all depends on how you use and dispose of the product. For example, products that are labeled as biodegradable can be disposed of in your (solid waste) garbage however it is important to remember that the landfill destinations for this garbage can lack the microorganisms and oxygen required for waste to biodegrade in a timely manner. Left compacted amidst tons of garbage in a landfill, biodegradable items can take years to break down; researchers have found 25-year old apple cores and newspapers, in near perfect condition, lying in landfills with garbage from thousands of other households. So while a product may be labeled ‘biodegradable’, if put in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment, it may take hundreds of years for it to fully decompose. We therefore need to minimize the biodegradable waste, just as much as any other kind of waste, that goes into our landfills.

Another example illustrating the importance of ‘how you use and dispose of a product’, concerns biodegradable liquids such as soap. Biodegradable liquids do not biodegrade when they end up in a river or lake because they require the microorganisms in soil in order to breakdown properly. So when you are using biodegradable soaps in the great outdoors, please use them at least 200 feet from any water source and dispose of soapy water in a cathole about 6” deep to allow bacteria in the soil to completely biodegrade the soap.

Biodegradability is a desirable feature in cleaning agents. Conventional cleaning agents will often release harmful phosphates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)2 as they break down but biodegradable versions will not. While most western country wastewater treatment systems can break down soaps and detergents that enter these systems, other reasons to buy ‘100% biodegradable’ include the potential health and environmental effects, exposures and releases, that are associated with the production, transportation, use and disposal of different cleaning products even before they enter the water treatment systems.

Be careful in your understanding that even if a product is labeled as biodegradable, it may not be completely environmentally friendly. There are some harmful substances that can be and are labeled as biodegradable. Try to be educated about the products you purchase, read the label, and be aware of the product ingredients. While products based on natural ingredients tend to be safer, this isn’t always the case.

Like biodegradable products, ‘degradable’ products also break down but decompose through chemical reactions rather than from the activity of microorganisms. Degradation, the process whereby very large molecules are broken into smaller molecules or fragments, can be caused by heat or exposure to UV light, and is enhanced by mechanical stress. Degradable plastics can be oil-based, will break down through chemical reactions, and they can therefore degrade in an anaerobic environment into carbon dioxide, water, biomass and trace elements.

There are two primary differences between ‘degradable’ and ‘biodegradable’. Firstly, heat, moisture and/or UV exposure most often cause the degradation of a degradable product whereas microorganisms degrade a biodegradable product. Secondly, degradable products tend to take much longer to break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass. When degradable plastics break down into smaller molecules, eventually they will be small enough to be consumed by microorganisms and biodegradation will ultimately occur. Therefore, all degradable substances will eventually biodegrade but at different, slower speeds.

‘Compostable’ products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit. When they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil which can aid the growth of trees and plants. Compostable items are made from plant materials such as corn, potato, cellulose, soy and sugar.

Compostable products degrade within several months in an industrial composting facility and produce no toxic residues. ‘Compostability’ is therefore a desirable feature in traditionally-disposable products such as plates, bowls, cups and cutlery. These products are commonly made out of PLA (polylactic acid), bagasse (sugarcane fiber) or vegetable starch. Compostable plastic is pretty close to biodegrable plastic but “greener”. According to the American Society for Testing & Materials, for plastic to be considered as compostable, it must be able to break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass at the same rate as paper. It also needs to look like compost, should not produce any toxic material, and should be able to support plant life.

Products that are labeled ‘compostable’ should enter an industrial composting facility in order for them to fully degrade into organic matter. If your city has a composting facility, place these products in your compost bins to be picked up. Compostable products will typically degrade in 30-120 days in an industrial composter, depending on the product size and material used. If your city doesn’t provide industrial composting, you can dispose of compostable products in your backyard or home composter; they will just take longer to biodegrade. If you do not have access to a compost facility or a home composter, dispose of the compostables in your (solid waste) garbage; this option should be your last resort because, as previously noted, waste does not easily biodegrade in landfills. Remember, please do not put compostables into your recycling; they are not recyclable and will contaminate the recycling process.

In summary, when choosing products, wherever possible, choose ‘compostable’ over ‘biodegradable’ and ‘biodegradable’ over ‘degradable’. Remember that even though a product may be described as biodegradable or degradable, it may not necessarily be environmentally friendly. Waste that isn’t recycled or composted often ends up in our landfills which are growing exponentially, all the while emitting methane gas (CH4). Methane production from landfills is rarely captured or burned but rather enters the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is the third biggest contributor to global warming (following water vapor and carbon dioxide).

I hope you find the above information helpful. With a clearer and fuller understanding of what it means to be biodegradable, degradable and compostable we’ll all be in a better position to make choices in our daily lives that will be good for our planet.

1 Biomass is a general term used to refer to the cells of the microorganisms that are using the material as a carbon source on which to grow.

2 Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a broad class of organic gases that are emitted from certain solids or liquids. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions. VOCs react with nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere to form low-level atmospheric ozone. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.

Sources: A Cooler Climate, American Standard for Testing Materials, Backcountry Attitude, Biodegradable Products – Understanding the Truth, Heritage Pioneer, The Green Office, US EPA, Wikipedia

How Can I Make A Positive Impact?

January 9, 2011

That was the question on which I’d been ruminating for several years before developing the concept for MyGreenFunds. I wanted to build something that would have an immediate and positive impact on my community and would, in some way, help improve the world my children were inheriting.

Of course it didn’t take long to recognize that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of important causes which one might want to support and there is no shortage of organizations, running a multitude of valuable programs, aimed at addressing the plethora of needs.

Most of the organizations addressing these needs rely on cash donations from the private sector. Monetary contributions are often supplemented by a variety of fundraising programs with a wide array of themes: Selling popcorn, raffle tickets, cookies/cookie dough, wrapping paper, event tickets, magazine subscriptions, and entertainment books; running silent auctions; holding fundraiser parties and sporting events—to name just a few.

Despite the range of approaches to raise money, I observed several shortcomings in much of the fundraising world. The most significant is that many people do not have the financial resources available to give cash donations on a regular basis. Others include:

  • Many people do not need or want the products that are used for fundraising efforts;
  • To be successful, most fundraising programs require a lot of work from unpaid volunteers yet there is a shrinking population willing or able to do this type of work;
  • Campaigns usually have a limited time window leaving a lost opportunity for fundraising at other times of the year; and
  • Most fundraising campaigns do not consider the target supporter’s growing interest in living a healthy lifestyle and protecting the environment.

It became my vision to try to address these fundraising shortcomings and this became the basis for MyGreenFunds.

Of course, a critical component of MyGreenFunds was to find a reliable source of products that would appeal to consumers of varying ages, tastes, and income levels. The products had to be things that people actually needed and used in their daily lives. They had to be healthy and eco-friendly and they had to be of the best quality available. I knew this would be a tall order to fill.

Fortunately, in February 2009, I was introduced to the new company, OnlyGreen, and a subset of the OnlyGreen product line. I was immediately won over by the quality of the products, the methodology for choosing and developing the products, the opportunity that OnlyGreen presented to educate others about the real environmental issues we face, and the discovery of a credible source of high-quality, green products.

Fast-forward to January 2011 and OnlyGreen continues to be the leading educator and provider of best-in-class, eco-friendly products in North America. I love the OnlyGreen mission and it has enabled MyGreenFunds to truly meet its business, fundraising, and environmental goals.

Because OnlyGreen offers a range of products that almost everyone uses daily, it is easy to purchase what one needs via MyGreenFunds and feel good knowing that 20% or more of the proceeds from each purchase will go to the organization selected as the Beneficiary. The products have been thoroughly evaluated to ensure that they are the most eco-friendly and they are competitively priced.

Now giving back to a favorite cause on a regular basis—without outlaying extra money—becomes easy. You can buy on MyGreenFunds your fair trade coffee and tea, biodegradable laundry soap and other cleaning supplies, all-natural health, beauty, baby care, and pet care supplies, cosmetics, and so on, select your non-profit Beneficiary following payment, and have your order delivered right to your door. Beneficiaries receive their donations on a quarterly basis and you receive an email detailing your donation(s) for your tax records.

If you haven’t tried shopping on MyGreenFunds, please do so and post your comments. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how easy is to transition to a greener lifestyle while taking a step further to making a difference in this world.

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