Biodegradable vs. Compostable: What’s the Difference?

| May 22, 2023

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The terms biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably. While there is some overlap, they do not mean the same thing.

All compostable products are biodegradable; yet, not all biodegradable products are compostable.

Confused? Not to worry. Nexeo Plastics expert and Product Manager of Healthcare and Sustainability, Taylor Burnham, and Earth Renewable Technologies' Chief Product Innovation Officer, Emanuel Martin make the distinction here.

It’s important in continuing the sustainability discussion, we establish a clear definition of biodegradable and the separation between products labeled “biodegradable” and products that are “certified compostable.”  In the last few decades of greenwashing, biodegradable and compostable have been used interchangeably which can be dangerous for brand owners and consumers who want to successfully participate in taking care of our planet.

To start, biodegradable is a general, overarching term for any material that naturally degrades over time. It includes all environments (i.e., soil, water), materials (i.e., plastic, natural fibers, cork), and timelines for that degradation (i.e., 1 year, 10 years, 100 years). However, the term can also include any material that doesn’t fully leave the earth after degradation. This means companies can label a product “biodegradable” even if it leaves toxic waste behind.

The term compostable fits inside that biodegradable box, however, it describes a very specific biodegradation process that producers can certify and test. Certified compostable plastic eliminates the toxic leave-behind aspect, but it remains important to the discussion that brand owners, producers, and distributors emphasize the composting process needs to be followed for these certified compostable plastics to completely leave the earth.  

To dive deeper, PLA, which a lot of certified compostable plastic is based in, is biodegradable which means that in the right environment, it will serve as a source of food for micro-organisms and fungi. After the biodegradation process is completed only natural and harmless substances like water, CO2, and compost will remain behind. The biodegradation process in certified compostable plastic will go relatively fast in industrial composting facilities and will take longer to complete in less biologically active environments, but it will still occur.

A quick and complete natural breakdown is not always the case when looking again at the much broader biodegradable-only label. With increasing demand for eco-friendly packaging, some manufacturers label products as biodegradable, because this requires no certification.

Manufacturers may get away with this term even when it takes years or decades to fully break down, because biodegradable is an unregulated term, it merely implies being eco-friendly while often being the opposite. By comparison, certified compostable materials are environmentally superior. (

Nexeo Plastics works alongside Earth Renewable Technologies (ERT) and other suppliers to represent products that contain PLA in their compositions that are certified ASTM D6400 and EN13432 as biobased and fully compostable. ERT products are essential examples of sustainability actions as they do not release microplastics and have an end-of-life that successfully allows for effective circularity.

Why is this important? 

Customers want to know they’re making the best choice when purchasing from you. Your customers need to know how to properly dispose of your packaging. Being clear that your packaging is compostable creates confidence in your sustainable brand and allows consumers to make smarter purchasing decisions.

You can Expect More from Nexeo Plastics because, beyond logistics, we provide the solutions you need. Read more about our sustainability commitment here.

About the Authors

Taylor Burnham | Product Manager for Healthcare and Sustainability

Taylor Burnham | Product Manager for Healthcare and Sustainability

As the North American Sustainability product manager, Taylor Burnham manages the go to market strategy and portfolio of suppliers focused in this segment alongside an internal team with extensive sustainable plastics knowledge. She spent 5 years in sales for Nexeo Solutions and Nexeo Plastics in Indiana after completing a BS in Industrial Distribution at the Dwight Look College of Engineering, Texas A&M University. Since joining product management in 2021, she was also named a Rising Star in Plastic in 2022 by Plastic News.

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Emanuel Martins | Chief Product and Innovation Officer at ERT

Emanuel Martins | Chief Product and Innovation Officer at ERT

Having been in the injection molding businesses for over 15 years, Emanuel has extensive experience in product and application development of bioplastics with specialty in natural fiber reinforced. In addition to working in the U.S., Emanuel has also spent 10 years working in Latin America and 5 years working in China. 

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