Understanding the Difference Between Certified Compostable/Biodegradable and USDA BioPreferred Products

Compostable and USDA BioPreferred are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Compostable products are those that can be broken down into soil in a composting process, while USDA BioPreferred products are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as being made from renewable resources or biobased materials. Compostable items can be certified as USDA BioPreferred, but not all bio-based products are compostable. Understanding the difference between these two terms is important for choosing sustainable materials for your home or business.

Why choose compostables over USDA BioPreferred Alternatives?

Compostable materials are regarded as a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to plastics. Compostables biodegrade naturally, helping businesses reduce their carbon footprint and achieve their sustainability goals. They are also more durable than bio-preferred alternatives, making them a great choice for businesses looking to save money in the long run.

If your local community has access to a mixed organics recycling program or scheme, compostables are a great way to divert a significant part of your home or business waste stream away from a landfill or incinerator.

For these reasons, compostables are becoming a popular choice when it comes to sustainable packaging solutions.

Why Choose USDA BioPreferred products instead of compostables?

If municipal or private, mixed organic composting is not available in your community, then any waste streams that contain compostable products are simply going to be sent to the landfill or incinerator. While there is an argument to be made that showing and purchasing concise compostable products creates an economic incentive for manufacturers, the reality is that compostable might be overkill.

BioPreferred products, on the other hand, make a similar economic statement and support manufacturers that offer sustainable alternatives to Plastics. BioProferred products are made from renewable, plant-based materials, so they naturally help reduce your carbon footprint. This makes them an ideal choice for businesses looking to reduce their environmental impact and be more sustainable. Additionally, BioPreferred products are often more cost-effective than compostables, making them a great option for businesses on a budget. With the rising demand for eco-friendly products, choosing BioPreferred is the smart choice for businesses looking to make a positive impact on the environment.

What is a compostable product?

Compostable products are materials that can be broken down into natural components such as carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. These materials can then be used to create healthy soil for gardening or farming. Compostable products are becoming increasingly popular due to the environmental benefits they provide. They are an excellent alternative to traditional plastics, which take decades to decompose and pollute the environment. By using compostable products, we can reduce our carbon footprint and help protect the planet.

Examples include virtually any sort of food packaging including restaurant takeout containers, drink cups, straws, trays. They can bags for lawn waste, kitchen/household waste, even smaller bags for food scraps. They can also include food wraps, even meat trays.

What’s the difference between backyard compostable and industrial compostable?

Products labeled as industrially or commercially compostable need specific temperatures and microbial conditions to break down into compost. This is where materials like PLA (polylactic acids), PBS (Poly(butylene succinate), PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate) and others come in. These materials look and feel like conventional plastics. They can be molded or extruded on the same equipment as regular plastics, which is super-important practical reality to successfully replace non-sustainable materials. And these materials are scientifically proven to biodegrade completely and safely in an industrial compost facility within 180 days or less.

You can read more about these remarkable polymers here.

Home composting is an environmentally friendly alternative to industrial composting. It involves the breakdown of products and materials at elevated temperatures (as high as 140 degrees), with the help of a natural microbial community.

Most plastics that are industrial compostable are not home compostable. This is because the micro organisms that are required to break down compostable plastics are not found in the relatively lower temperatures of a home compost. Home composting is best for wet or soiled paper, and food scraps. (While expert home composters can successfully biodegrade meets oils and cheeses, it is somewhat difficult, and not recommended due to the potential danger for attracting rats and other vermin.)

In order to label a material as home compostable, it must meet the standards of ASTM, NFT 51800, prEN 17427, or AS 5810, which requires disintegration in six months and biodegradation and compost formation in a year. TUV Austria provides their OK compost HOME certification for products that meet these criteria. The certification signifies that a product is certified to compost in a home compost environment in under a year. There is currently no equivalent certification of this sort available in the United States.

Why is it necessary to certify compostable products?

Certification is necessary, because there are many charlatans that attempt to market products as biodegradable and compostable, when in fact, they do no such thing. For example, plastics that are mixed with special additives that cause plastic to fragment into smaller bits are still available on the market yet widely discredited and banned by any composting operation. The European Union has taken the dramatic step of recommending the complete ban of such products due to environmental concerns.

A certified compostable product has been tested and certified by an accredited third-party organization to meet specific standards for biodegradability and compostability. Organizations in the United States include the Biodegradable Products Institute, primarily an industry-funded, self policing and certification company. In Europe, compostability certification is handled by a independent organization, DIN CERTCO/TÜV Rhineland.

There are only two basic scientific standards in North America that are excepted as proof of composed ability: ASTM D-6868, which is relevant for paper and natural fiber products that have been coded with a compostable plastic. And ASTM D-6400, which is a standard used to prove composed ability for molded and formed plastic products, such as cups, lids, straws, and utensils.

In Europe, that standards are slightly different but have essentially the same effect.

So certification becomes an important standard to look for when buying any product advertised as biodegradable or compostable.

At compostables.org, we reference more than 1,500 compostable products for sale on Amazon. We analyze each product listing to check for evidence of compliance with testing for composability in industrial composting environments.

Should someone buy compostable products?

Essentially, no one should buy a compostable product unless that product has a reasonable chance of being composted. With few municipal composting facilities in the United States, the vast majority of compostable products end up in landfills because widespread municipal composting is unavailable.

According to the 2014 ‘State of Composting in Our Country’ by Brenda Platt of ILSR and Nora Goldstein of BioCycle, there were 4,914 composting operations in the U.S.  A more recent article by the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group said that 326 towns and cities have access to food waste curbside collection, but that is less than 2% of Americans.

Worse, detractors call biodegradable products a sham or a pipedream, and skeptics regard industry-funded “certification” companies like the BPI nothing more than coaches, not referees.


However, the future of compostable products is not that bleak. There’s a strong argument to be made that compost facilities can dramatically, lower, methane emissions and groundwater pollution caused when biodegradable materials biodegrade in landfills. Composting facilities are relatively easy to build, and if properly constructed can be highly effective at diverting, biodegradable waste from overfilled landfills. Detractors often complain about odors from poorly located and operated facilities. This makes local politicians reluctant to make aggressive moves to expand composting to a town near you.

There are some forward thinking organizations that are solving this chicken and egg dilemma by organizing private collection of predominantly organic wastes, and having them processed at privately operated mixed organic compost facilities. There are some trade associations, such as the Green Restaurant Association and the Green Sports Alliance that are also on the cutting edge of using compostables in a so-called close loop environment that can carefully control the waste stream and waste hauling practices.

To be successful, therefore, composting and compostable products require involvement of concerned, local citizens to educate politicians and lawmakers, and make the case for expanding access to mixed organic composting. One such organization is the Institute for Local Self Reliance, or ILSR, which has organized a community composting group to advocate for local/community-scale composting.

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