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Compostable vs Degradable vs Biodegradable Plastic

Compostable vs Degradable vs Biodegradable Plastic

As consumers and companies move towards more responsible, ethical consumption, a spotlight has been placed on plastics, especially the single-use variety. The ‘plastic backlash’ or ‘war on plastic’ is gaining momentum worldwide. As a result, reputable companies have begun to innovate and create viable alternatives to harmful plastics. 

Others have begun to ‘green-wash’ their products by labelling them in misleading ways. We’ve already seen consciously-minded companies with the right intentions, make misinformed decisions and offer the greenwashed plastic-alternative oxo-biodegradable bags to their customers. 

This blog post is meant to clear up any confusion between biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable and compostable bags. Our hope is that this post enables both consumers & companies to make informed decisions so mistakes like this don’t happen again. 

Degradable Plastic

Degradable bags are made from plastic with other chemicals added that cause the plastic to break down and disintegrate when exposed to sunlight and heat. If degradable bags are released into our environment they become quite problematic as they break down into hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic, known as micro-plastics. 

Degradable plastics are worse for the environment and for human health than traditional single-use plastics as they break down into micro-plastics more quickly and enter our food- and water supply chains. Humans and animals are now consuming microplastics at alarming rates, through the water we drink and even the air we breathe

Biodegradable Plastic

Like degradable bags, biodegradable bags are plastic bags which have microorganisms added to break down the plastic. The difference is that they break down completely into natural substances (organic matter), not smaller plastics. 

So... they’re good, right?

Well yes and no. Items labelled as biodegradable aren’t obliged to biodegrade into those natural substances quickly. In fact, some biodegradable bags will last as long in the natural environment as their plastic counterparts, posing the same threats to wildlife. That means 400 + years in a landfill, forest or ocean - taking up space and polluting our beautiful world. 

Focus: oxo-biodegradable

Products labelled as biodegradable plastics are sometimes actually made from oxo-degradable plastics. This is misleading.

Oxo-biodegradable plastics fall under the definition of degradable, not biodegradable plastic. They just break down into micro-plastics. They should be avoided. 

Compostable Plastic

Compostable plastics are a subset biodegradable plastics and break down into natural substances only. The big difference between compostable and biodegradable is their adherence to internationally defined standards which include parameters for temperature and degradation time. 

Two types: Industrial vs Home Compostable

Industrial Compostable Certified: will only break-down in an industrial composting facility where certain temperatures, levels of moisture and micro-organisms are present. This type of compostability poses the same problems as plastic-recycling where centralized collection and drop-off systems are very inefficient. 

  • In South Africa, there are no nationwide compost collection services for industrial facilities. In fact, there are only 10 small scale industrial facilities in the entire country. 

Home Compostable Certified: will break-down in a home composting environment and even a well-watered garden or house-plant. They require nothing but garden conditions to decompose.

mielie mailer - 100% Home Compostable 

Our bags are certified by all three international accreditation bodies for home-compostability. What this means is that they will break down into nothing but CO2, H2O and nutrient-rich humus (organic matter). How long will this process take? About 6-months. 

mielie mailers do not produce any toxic material and are considered worm safe. In fact, our bags can be used to improve soils. Just add them to your compost heap, watch them disappear and use the resulting nutrient-rich compost in your vegetable patch or garden. 

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