top of page

Biodegradable, Compostable, & Zero Waste Explained

One of the fastest growing foodservice trends is switching from traditional disposables and foodservice products to eco-friendly options. But, when searching for eco-friendly products for your restaurant, you may come across the terms "biodegradable," "degradable," and "compostable." We will explain the differences between biodegradable, compostable, and degradable products, as well as how your restaurant can go zero waste with eco-friendly disposables.

Biodegradable, Compostable, and Degradable: What's the Difference?

Biodegradable, compostable, and degradable products are made from different materials and deteriorate under varying circumstances. We'll break down each type of eco-friendly product to help you make an informed decision when buying eco-friendly disposables for your business.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

Biodegradable refers to a product breaking down into natural elements, carbon dioxide, and water vapor by organisms like bacteria and fungi. Technically, just about everything is biodegradable, although it will take hundreds of thousands of years for most things to biodegrade. Here are some benefits of biodegradable products:

Biodegradable products break down much faster than other types of products.
These types of products break down into carbon dioxide, water vapor, and organic material, which isn't harmful to the environment.
Typically, these products are made from sustainable materials and plant by-products, such as corn starch or sugarcane.

Why Biodegradable Products Shouldn't Go to Landfills

While biodegradable products are generally an eco-friendly option for restaurants, there are some downsides as well. When biodegradable products are dumped into landfills, which happens when they're thrown into the trash, they often become buried. Beneficial bacteria cannot survive buried underneath that trash because there is very little oxygen.

As a result, the biodegradable products break down anaerobically, meaning without oxygen, which creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is bad for the environment. Some landfills collect methane that is produced in their landfills and use it to create electricity, but most do not.

How to Dispose of Biodegradable Products
Because biodegradable products in landfills can create harmful methane, it is better to dispose of them in a commercial compost heap or to send them to a recycling plant. You can also check if there is a biogas plant in your area, which uses biodegradable products to create methane which they then use to generate electricity.

What Is Compostable?
Compostable means that a product will break down into natural elements, but only in a compost setting. Compostable materials are typically made from plants and other organic materials, such as corn starch, bagasse, or PLA plastic. Compostable products have two added benefits over biodegradable options: they break down much faster, many in roughly 90 days, and they also break down into nutrient-rich products, which generates healthy soil for the planet.

How to Dispose of Compostable Products
For compostable products to break down correctly, they need to be thrown away in a compost heap. Compost heaps are rich in microorganisms and reach high temperatures, which allow products to break down quickly. These types of products do not break down easily in traditional landfills, so compostable products should not be thrown in the trash. Additionally, many types of compostable products mimic the look of plastic, but they should not be recycled.

Why You Shouldn't Recycle Compostable Products
Compostable products are not recyclable, and if a compostable item gets into the recycling process, it will contaminate and ruin the rest of the batch. As a result, if you're using compostable products at your fast food establishment or food truck, you should alert your customers so they can dispose of the products properly.

What Does Degradable Mean?
Degradable products are mostly oil-based and they break down through chemical reactions rather than organically by microorganisms. Unlike biodegradable products, degradable plastic items can break down in anaerobic environments like landfills.

Additionally, degradable products do not break down completely and turn into organic material. Instead they break apart into microscopic pieces which can still affect the environment. For example, some plastic can degrade and turn into small pieces, which animals ingest, causing major issues in the food chain. Additionally, it typically takes much longer for products to degrade than it does to take biodegradable or compostable items to break down.

What Is Zero Waste?
Zero waste is a philosophy that aims to follow sustainable natural cycles where all discarded materials are used for other purposes, resulting in no trash going to landfills or incinerators. The goal of zero waste is not to send products to recycling plants and compost heaps instead of landfills, but instead to use all of the product so no waste is generated entirely. While many people across the country are choosing a zero waste lifestyle at home, you can also implement some tactics in your restaurant to lead to a zero waste kitchen.

How to Go Zero Waste
The first step into going zero waste in your kitchen is to determine how much food you're wasting and how much trash you're producing. From there, you can decide where to make adjustments. One of the best ways to calculate how much food you're wasting is to conduct a food waste audit.

To conduct a food waste audit, have your employees track the amount of food that is coming into your restaurant and then how much is being thrown away. This can help you understand if you need to scale back your shipments or adjust your menu accordingly. Another major source of waste in kitchens are disposables like plastic cups, disposable plates, straws, napkins, and packaging.

Zero Waste Tips
If you're interested in making your restaurant into a zero waste kitchen, here are some helpful tips to reduce waste and re-purpose products:

Find unique ways that you can use food scraps in your kitchen, such as using vegetable scraps and skins to make vegetable broth.
Donate excess food to local farms to use as animal feed or to local food banks.
Use leftover meat and vegetables in soups and stews.
Swap out your disposable plates and bowls for melamine or china options.
Replace your paper napkins with reusable cloth versions.
Eliminate plastic straws.
Choose eco-friendly cleaning supplies and chemicals.
Take any remaining scraps or waste to commercial compost heaps rather than throwing it away.

While there are many similarities between biodegradable, compostable, and degradable items in terms of construction and look, they are vastly different and have very different impacts on the environment. If you're looking for disposables that can help you with transitioning your kitchen to zero waste, compostable items are the perfect choice because they're sustainable, they turn into safe organic material, and they break down quickly.

bottom of page