What Does Compostable Really Mean? All Of Your Questions Answered

What Does Compostable Really Mean? All Of Your Questions Answered

Practicing mindful and intentional disposal is a crucial part in our sustainability efforts. . There is a reason that the mantra is ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ as every part of that cycle is integral to the wellbeing of our environment.

Once you have completed reducing and reusing by only buying what you need and then reusing it however possible, there will likely come a time when it can no longer be reused or serve its purpose. This is where the “recycling” step comes in. 

In this case, it is composting rather than recycling, but the spirit of an eco-conscious means of disposal is all in the same

Now, it becomes a matter of ethically and sustainably disposing of the remaining materials without contributing to the tremendous amount of waste already polluting the earth the best environmentally friendly way to get rid of these materials is through composting. 

So what exactly do we mean by composting? Composting is a natural process that takes place with certain materials under specific conditions, like an environment with proper bacteria and temperature. When the correct environment is facilitated for compostable materials, they will be broken down by microorganisms and fungi. 

Once this natural degradation of compostable materials has run its course, we are left with a soil substance that is incredibly rich in nutrients. This usable compost can then be used to fertilize new crops, creating organic materials that can later be composted, continuing the cycle.

Do Biodegradable and Compostable Mean the Same Thing?

It is perfectly normal for people to think of biodegradable products when considering eco-friendly items and disposal methods. Both biodegradables and compostables are much better for the environment than the landfill alternative.  When products are disposed of in landfills, even the plastic that breaks down turns into microplastics that pollute our marine environment

It is important to note that not all natural disposal methods are created equal, and biodegradable and compostable do not mean the same thing. For one thing, there is a much more strict definition of “compostables,” whereas “biodegradables” can be a very loose term that allows for a lot of misleading information.

For products to have labels stating they are “compostable,” they have to follow a particular set of guidelines that state how they break down and what the eventual result of that degradation leads to.

How Can I Know If Something is Compostable?

Knowing if something is compostable is not as complicated of a process as it may seem. There are a variety of helpful guides available online that will give you a pretty thorough breakdown of what you can put in your home compost. The issue does become just a little more complicated, however, when you consider commercial compost.

Due to green guides set in place by the Federal Trade Commission (or FTC), there are serious limits on the companies’ claims regarding their eco-friendly nature. It dictates that product marketing cannot mislead consumers when it comes to environmental harm or environmental benefits.

These guidelines help it become a lot clearer as to what products are actually compostable or not. However, when it comes to what individual materials are compostable, it is a slightly different story.

What Makes a Material Compostable?

For a material to be compostable, it must be made of organic materials that naturally break down into the elements. This breakdown must occur in a timely manner in an environment suitable for composting. If done correctly, this process will do no harm to the environment. This is a stark contrast to inorganic compounds that release large amounts of greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, methane, and other chemicals into the atmosphere.

A test known as ASTM D6400 helps determine if a substance (especially alleged “compostable plastics”) is actually compostable. Additionally, organic materials like produce and other food scraps are compostable, along with paper and cardboard products. 

Compostable vs. Commercially Compostable

A commercial compost facility is inherently different from a home compost pile or compost bin due to what materials it can break down. Since a commercial compost provides the absolute ideal environment for these materials to degrade, things like meat, bioplastics, and larger plant parts can all be successfully composted.

This is different from a home compost pile, which is better suited to handling non-meat food scraps and paper products.

Compostable vs. Recyclable: Which Is Better?

While both of these options are better than throwing your waste into the garbage, there is no doubt that one is superior to the other. Composting does not require energy, where recycling does. There is one advantage that recycling often has on composting, though, and that is how it is often more accessible.

Towns and cities have recycling programs to either pick up your recycling or deliver it to a set location. Community compost piles can, unfortunately, be harder to find. They are becoming more prevalent in American society, but for the time being, there is still a disparity between the two. City-operated yard waste programs are also becoming more prevalent, but unfortunately, they do not yet take food scraps and other compostable waste. 

Benefits of Compostable Products

There are a wide array of benefits that compostable products have to offer us. For one thing, we can rest assured that what is in the product is natural, as it would not be able to break down otherwise.

Compostable products help reduce greenhouse gases and water usage while also serving as fertilizer for future crops.

Do Compostable Products Break Down in Landfills?

Since composting is a process that can only occur under specific circumstances, throwing a compostable product into a normal garbage pile is not helpful. Compostable materials will only go through this process if in the proper conditions, so, therefore, they do not break down in landfills.


Composting is one of the best disposal methods since it allows us to give back to the earth. As a result, we highly recommend looking into either home composting or community compost piles near you.


Commercial Composting, “Green-Washing” and Eco Labels | World Centric

Green Guides | FTC

Astm D6400 – Test for Compostability | BPI

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