Biodegradable vs Compostable Trash Bags: The Catch

Grace
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If you want to do your bit to help the environment then you may have looked into biodegradable trash bags and compostable trash bags. Single-use plastic is one of the most harmful things for the environment. Biodegradable and compostable bags make good alternatives to single-use plastic.

The problem is knowing which one is the best choice or which one is best suited to your needs.

Both of these bags should break down naturally over time. The biggest distinction is that generally, compostable trash bags break down more easily than biodegradable trash bags. A lot of evidence suggests that sometimes biodegradable trash bags don’t even break down at all. For that reason, a lot of people favor compostable trash bags.

On the other hand, biodegradable bags are generally more robust.

Biodegradable vs Compostable Trash Bags: The Catch 1

What are biodegradable trash bags?

Biodegradable trash bags are designed to decompose in the presence of light, moisture, and oxygen. As the name suggests, the right conditions make these trash bags biodegradable.

What’s the catch

Unfortunately, a lot of biodegradable trash bags end up in landfill sites where the conditions aren’t right. They take a lot longer to decompose and sometimes don’t decompose at all. As a result, a lot of people believe that biodegradable trash bags are worse than compostable bags.

It’s not all bad though. One good thing about them is that if they do end up escaping into the environment they will eventually degrade. Generally, out in the environment, there is enough light, moisture, and air to encourage decomposition for biodegradable trash bags to do their thing.

We’ve all seen photos of plastic bags floating around in the ocean, unable to break down. If a biodegradable bag ends up in the ocean or on land by mistake, then eventually it will break down and be less harmful than a normal plastic bag.

Note: Another catch with biodegradable trash bags is that the term ‘biodegradable’ is generally unregulated. Unlike the compostable trash bags which should meet the ASTM D6400 standard, there is no such standard with biodegradable trash bags. As such, you can’t always be sure if the waste bags you’re buying are actually eco friendly at all.

Generally speaking, despite their shortcomings they are better than normal single-use bags.

Are they any good?

One good thing about biodegradable bags is that they are more practical. They don’t tend to degrade while they’re in your bin, which has been reported with compostable garbage bags. They’re generally strong enough under most conditions.

If you want to do your own research take a look at the Biodegradable Products Institute. They have a lot of information on the subject.

What are compostable trash bags?

Compostable trash bags are designed to break down in the same way that organic matter does. This should happen within between 3 to 6 months.

What’s the catch?

The catch is that most compostable garbage bags have limited use for home composting. Most need an industrial composting facility.

In the United States, compostable garbage bags should meet the ASTM D6400 standard and display the appropriate label. If they meet this then they will be able to compost in municipal or industrial facilities.

There are compostable waste bags that are suitable for home use. if you’re looking to purchase a kitchen trash bag you can send into your garden for composting then make sure you check the label to see if it’s verified for this purpose.

Often people buy standard compostable garbage bags for food waste and then transfer them to their garden compost heap only to find that the bag stays for a long time. The heat usually isn’t sufficient in a garden compost heap and the process can take years.

If you make this mistake, you may be able to accelerate the process by adding more food waste as compost to increase the heat and make sure there is plenty of water in your compost heat.

Good quality compost bags made for home composting should work in most garden compost heaps.

Durability

Compostable bags are made of materials that aren’t as strong as biodegradable bags. They tend to tear more easily. Also, people have reported that they can compost in the trash can while they’re still in the kitchen.

Note: Manufacturers have realised this and you can now buy thicker compostable trash bags which are less likely to split.

Price

Compostable bags tend to be more expensive than biodegradable ones. Seeing as most people don’t need to purchase them that often this doesn’t usually matter too much.

If you do your shopping online then you should get the best deals. Make sure the dealer is verified before you click add to cart.

Are they any good?

In terms of their ability to decompose and their nontoxic properties, compostable bags are generally considered to be better than biodegradable bags.

They will decompose if your trash is sent to a certified compost waste facility and they will also decompose more quickly in landfill. Often landfill sites have conditions more like a compost heap, with darkness, heat, and moisture.

On top of this, compostable trash bags are usually less harmful if they find their way out into the natural environment. Although, exposure to oxygen, light, and cooler temperatures aren’t the ideal conditions for decomposition for these bags they will still decompose. Studies have found that, in the ocean, compostable bags actually decompose more quickly than biodegradable trash bags.

Pro tip: why not go bagless? A lot of people who do home composting just go bagless. Just put your food waste straight in the trash can and then straight onto the compost heap. A 13-gallon trash can is best for this.

Biodegradable vs Compostable Trash Bags: The Catch 2

What is the difference?

The difference is in what they’re made of.

Materials used in biodegradable bags

Biodegradable bags are usually made from plant-based materials. In the United States, corn and wheat starch are normally used. Normal plastic bags are usually made from petroleum. The ‘bio’ part of ‘biodegradable’ means that biological organisms are able to feed on this starch and break it down.

These biological organisms can’t do that with petroleum. All they can do is be broken down themselves and become petroleum.

These organisms use the bags as food. With the right amount of light, moisture, and oxygen these creatures feed on the biodegradable bags. The trouble is that even under good conditions this takes a long time and often bags end up in landfills where conditions aren’t right.

Smaller particles

One problem with biodegradable trash bags is that even though they are broken down, the materials used to make them have similar properties to petroleum plastic. While some of it is processed by organic matter other parts of the bag are broken off into tiny pieces that act in the same way as plastic particles.

Manufacturers who use the wrong materials

The manufacturer needs to use the right materials to make their trash bags biodegradable. If they don’t then their eco-friendly credentials are no good. Make sure you buy a verified item.

Materials used in compostable bags

Similar to biodegradable bags, compostable trash bags are made of plant-based materials and often from starch. In the United States, corn or potato starch is usually used.

The manufacturing processes are different though and the types of starch used to make a difference. When compostable garbage bags are exposed to heat and moisture they return to their base organic components which are not harmful to the environment.

Materials used in compostable bags for home use

The materials used in compostable bags designed for home use are different from those for commercial disposal. On top of this, the production processes are different. Make sure you get garbage bags designed for home compost heaps if that is where they’re going to end up.

Are they eco-friendly? Do they help the environment?

To put it simply, both types of bags are better than single-use plastic trash bags. To go a bit deeper, most people think that compostable bags are better than biodegradable trash bags.

Generally speaking, compostable bags break down more easily.

In summary

  • The key benefit they both bring is the ability to be broken down into harmless matter
  • The catch is it is easier to find the right conditions for compostable bags
  • Compostable bags are generally considered to be better for the environment
  • The thing that keeps people using biodegradable bags is practicality

Verdict

Compostable bags are better than their biodegradable counterpart.

Even better than that would be to not use bags at all or to see if there is a way that you can use one of our alternatives.

What are the alternatives?

The best alternative from an eco-friendly point of view is to use nothing. Rather than using trash bags, you can skip them altogether. Just put your waste food straight into the trash can and then onto a compost heap. This is the most nontoxic thing you can do.

Unfortunately, not everyone can carry out composting themselves. If you do need to send your trash off to a landfill or to a composting facility then you will need some kind of bag or container at least.

Here are some trash bag style alternatives.

Paper trash bags

You can use leftover paper bags or you can purchase paper trash bags. Have a look online and you will even see paper bags designed for large trash cans. This can be hazardous with kitchen trash and particularly things that are wet.

Biodegradable trash has a tendency to start degrading the bag and if you’re not careful when you go to lift the bag out you’ll just end up with a bag in your hands with a big hole in the end.

One good thing about paper is that it’s very biodegradable and can be composted, even on a home compost heap. It also doesn’t do too much harm in landfills.

Biodegradable vs Compostable Trash Bags: The Catch 3

Cardboard boxes

Much like paper bags, cardboard can be used to hold rubbish. It’s stronger than paper but will take longer to decompose. It’s also less practical when it comes to lining a kitchen trash can.

Hessian sacks

If you’re feeling adventurous why not try using hessian sacks. Hessian is completely biodegradable and can be composted or sent to a landfill.

Recycled plastic

There are recycled plastic bags available that have been entirely made from plastic that has been reused from another source. Although this isn’t actually eco-friendly or nontoxic itself it less harmful to the environment than using plastic that has been freshly manufactured.

Watch out for ‘degradable’ or ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic bags

Be careful to avoid using ‘degradable’ or ‘oxo-degradable’ trash bags. Rather than being able to be broken down by living organisms into harmless materials these bags just have a chemical additive that makes them dissolve quickly.

This doesn’t solve the problem and a lot of people think it just makes it worse. You may have heard about the damage that plastic particles are doing to the ocean and marine life. These trash bags make it worse. These tiny particles find their way into sea creatures and poison them. On top of that, they’re more difficult to clean up than an actual plastic bag.

Note: Do not buy ‘degradable’ or ‘oxo-degradable’ garbage bags. They are toxic and not eco friendly.

Normal plastic bags

If you’re interested in what harm is caused by a normal plastic trash bag then here are some figures:

  • 14 plastic bags are the equivalent of one mile worth of gas for a car
  • The average plastic bag has a life span of 12 minutes
  • Plastic garbage bags never biodegrade

Another problem with normal plastic bags is that they are difficult and costly to recycle. In order to recycle plastic bags, they need to be collected separately and then they need to be recycled using expensive machinery and through difficult processes.

One interesting solution

The best solution I could find to the problem of single-use plastic bags is to collect old used plastic garbage bags and use them to make 13-gallon baskets. If you clean your old plastic bags and then use them to make rope you can turn them into baskets. Not only does this provide use for your old bags but it means you won’t need to buy another trash bag again.

Do your own research into these and you will find some great designs.

I hope this guide article on biodegradable and compostable trash bags has been helpful and has helped you discover the best bag for your needs. Not only are plastic bags one of the most harmful things to the environment but they are also one of the hardest problems to solve.

Love,

G.


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