Compostable vs. Biodegradable Promotional Products | What You Need To Know


When shopping for environmentally friendly promotional products, it’s likely that you’ll see different ‘eco’ buzzwords used in their marketing. Compostable and biodegradable may seem like interchangeable terms to the average consumer but there are key differences between the terms that are important to be aware of.

Read on to learn what these two common terms mean, and how you can be more aware when choosing environmentally friendly promotional products.

Food Waste Bin for Compost

What does compostable mean?

Composting is becoming more common in many communities and households. Composting can be done at both a household level as well as at a commercial scale. Compostable products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit. When compostable products break down, they release nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants and enhancing overall soil health.

The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), one of the world’s largest international standards developing organizations, defines compostable as anything that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with other compostable materials, leaving no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.

Items that are compostable will break down when in a compost environment into material that can enrich the quality of the surrounding soil. Most compost piles and commercial scale composters accept food scraps and plant trimmings, but in recent years, many companies have begun to create packaging that is also compostable.

BPI is North America’s leading certifier of compostable products and packaging. Their program ensures that products and packaging displaying the BPI logo have been independently tested and verified according to scientifically based standards.

Compost Pile on University Campus

How does the term compostable relate to eco promotional products?

According the FTC Guidelines for Environmental Claims, marketers who claim a product is compostable need competent and reliable scientific evidence that all materials in the product or package will break down into (or become part of) usable compost safely, and in about the same time as the materials with which it is composted.

They should qualify compostable claims if the product can’t be composted at home safely or in a timely way. Marketers also should qualify a claim that a product can be composted in a municipal or institutional facility if the facilities aren’t available to a substantial majority of consumers.

Packaging that is home compostable should mean that every component and material used in the packaging will breakdown and decompose into organic soil. This includes the whole of the package; the printing ink, and the adhesives used to seal the package.

A cursory search in ESP, a promotional products industry product search database, for “Compostable” brings up 1,326 products, ranging from recycled seed embedded paper to silicon containers and bamboo/plastic composite travel mugs. At a glance, very few of the 1,326 products meet ASTM standards for composability (the seeded paper is all good though!). This poses a risk if you’re selling or buying these products under the guise that they’re more sustainable.

What are the concerns with compostable packaging?

Because most compostable packaging needs to be processed in commercial scale facilities, there is an issue of access. There simply aren’t a lot of commercial composting programs in North America. This means that much of the compostable packaging we put into our recycling or regular waste bins is still incinerated or sent to the landfill.

What does biodegradable mean?

Many people confuse the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, but they have different implications. A biodegradable item will break down naturally when exposed to elements like moisture, light, and bacteria that are found in nature, but they are not for your home compost bins.

According to the ASTM, biodegradables are anything that undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.

Liquid products that are biodegradable will decompose naturally in water. Many biodegradable products are also bio-based, although this isn’t always the case. Bio-based products are made from renewable materials like plant fibers, animal feedstocks, or food waste. Bio-based products are much more likely to decompose properly after their use because they are made of these renewable natural sources.

Biodegradable items ‘break down’ but they don’t add any nutrient value to enrich the soil. Unlike composting there is no added soil enrichment at the end of the degradation process.

What are the concerns with biodegradable products and packaging?

The biggest concern with promotional products and packaging labelled biodegradable is that they need very specific conditions to biodegrade, and those conditions are not easy to find in a consistent way.

For example, a 2015 study from Plymouth University indicated that many biodegradable grocery bags won’t fully break down after three years. This is even after being submerged in water, exposed to consistent outdoor air, or being buried in soil – three things that often happen to biodegradable products after they’ve been used. This is particularly worrisome for aquatic wildlife, who can choke on waste items that end up in the ocean and do not break down properly.

Another major concern is that biodegradable products often end up in landfills, where they won’t be exposed to the proper natural conditions to break down. Landfills shut out sunlight, moisture, and air, and they have a good reason for doing so – they’re designed to prevent the contents of landfills from polluting drinking water or polluting the air around them. Those conditions make it very difficult for biodegradable waste items to break down properly.

Companies are not supposed to market their products as biodegradable if they know they will end up in a landfill, but it’s difficult to monitor exactly where these items end up and what people will do with them at end of life.

It’s also problematic if these items end up in a recycling bin, because they can contaminate other items and make them no longer recyclable.

biodegradable products

So, how does the term biodegradable relate to eco promotional products?

Marketers may make an unqualified degradable claim only if they can prove that the “entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” The “reasonably short period of time” for complete decomposition of solid waste products? One year.

Items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities will not degrade within a year, so unqualified biodegradable claims for them shouldn’t be made.

A cursory search in the promotional produce search database, ESP, for “biodegradable” brings up 3,179 products, ranging from ballpoint pens to cotton tote bags. In this category, there are a lot of products without any qualifications noted but in quite a few cases, suppliers have provided very detailed references to their standards. For example, in the case of one bio-based pen, the supplier notes it’s made of 75% bio-based plastic and is “considered biodegradable in landfill conditions according to ASTM D511. (This product may not be marketed as biodegradable in California).”

What’s better? Biodegradable or Compostable?

Compostable is better as a) it’s a certifiable standard and b) compostable items will break down when in a compost environment into material that can enhance the quality of the surrounding soil.

How can you ensure your promotional products meet sustainability standards?

In an industry rife with vague environmental claims like as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘eco-friendly’ it’s hard to know who to believe. The promotional products industry is made up of suppliers and distributors – and most promotional product buyers work with distributors. Suppliers are responsible for providing accurate information on their products, but too often their claims are non-existent, vague or misleading and inaccurate. That’s where working with a distributor who knows green from green-washing comes in. At Fairware, we see it as our responsibility to vet supplier claims BEFORE they get to our clients and put their brands at risk.

These terms are hard to standardize, and companies can use them without having any real sustainable attributes in their products. While the FTC has cracked down on companies with misleading environmental claims, there is little incentive to change.

Compostable and biodegradable products are often confused with one another, but they have different implications for the environment. While they are both designed to decompose, they require different natural settings in order to fully break down. Staying informed of the types of promotional products you purchase and the waste they create at the end of their life is imperative to protecting our planet.

Make sure you’re asking your promotional product suppliers (or us) if any compostable and biodegradable claims meet the FTC Guidelines to ensure you’re not making false claims and running the risk of greenwashing.

To learn how we can help you align your marketing efforts with your zero waste values, check out our Zero Waste Lookbook.

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