Biodegradable, Compostable and Renewable: Definitions for a Green Commercial Kitchen


biodegradable take out container

As the country rushes to go green, there is an abundance of new products entering the market being touted as “100% Biodegradable” or “100% Compostable” or “100% Renewable.” Oftentimes the terms are used interchangeably even within the same advertisement. With all of the marketing jargon surrounding these new and improved products, it is easy to become confused. Chances are even the companies doing the advertising do not understand the basic differences and similarities between the terms and products.

Biodegradable Defined

When a product is biodegradable, it can be turned into simpler compounds through metabolism by microbes and other small organisms. If you toss an apple core into an empty field, over time it will wither and eventually disappear. This happens because bacteria, mold and small animals are using the apple core as food, thus returning it to nature.

Important Note: Biodegradation can occur at different rates in different environments. Depending on the material, biodegradation can take place in soil, water, compost heaps and even the human body.

Compostable Defined

Composting simply speeds up the process of biodegradation by providing ideal conditions, so all natural occurring organic materials can be composted. Successful composting requires sufficient air and moisture so the microbes can digest the material. A properly maintained compost heap will also have an internal temperature range between 105° and 145° F. » Learn More

Important Note: Commercial kitchens that want to participate in a composting program can contract with a local commercial composting facility, landscaper or farmer. Options also exist for in-house composting.

Biodegradable Plastics Defined

As their name suggests, bio-plastics are man-made plastics that can biodegrade, providing food for microbes and returning them to nature. In order to be considered biodegradable, current ASTM testing standards state that bio-plastics have to break down at the same rate as cellulose, leave behind no toxic materials and resemble regular humus once the process is complete. The speed of biodegradation required to meet standards can only be achieved under commercial composting conditions. » Learn More

Important Note: There are some bio-plastics manufacturers that claim their products can biodegrade in nature, meaning they will disintegrate in an empty field alongside the aforementioned apple core. However, there are no current testing standards or certifications to back-up this claim. » Learn More

Renewable Defined

A product labeled 100% renewable or bio-based only means that it was produced using renewable resources like paper, corn or sugarcane. Petroleum-based products, like water bottles, are considered non-renewable because of the time needed to for the planet to make crude oil. » Learn More

Important Note: Not all products labeled as renewable will biodegrade. There are forms of plastic that are made from renewable resources, but are so strong that they will not break down even in commercial composting facilities.


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