Biodegradable vs. Degradable vs. Compostable

More and more products on the market are now being marketed as biodegradable or degradable. So that’s a good thing right? In theory it sounds amazing – plastic that breaks down but in reality it’s much more complicated than that. Let’s talk about plastic bags and what’s the best option. 

Most plastic bags are usually made from polyethylene or HDPE which is derived from natural gas and petroleum. Worldwide 2 million plastic bags are used every sixty seconds (cry). If that isn't bad enough, they have an average life span of 12 minutes before they are thrown away.

Biodegradable plastic bags are made from plant-based materials like corn and wheat starch rather than petroleum. However, for a bag to begin to biodegrade it needs to be both exposed to light AND reach temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius. In these conditions living organisms will break down the bag (like bacteria and fungi). If biodegradable bags are disposed of in a way where they can’t access oxygen (like going to landfill), they produce the harmful greenhouse gas known as methane as they breakdown.

Degradable bags are different altogether. Degradable means they do not require living organisms to break down. Instead, chemical additives in the plastic allow the bag to break down quicker than a standard plastic bag usually would. Degradable bags that disintegrate into smaller pieces (micro plastics) pose serious threats to marine life. ⁠ ⁠

Compostable bags are made of natural plant starch, and do not produce any toxic material. Compostable bags generally refer to biodegradable bags that will biodegrade within 6 months if composted, but only under certain conditions. There are essentially two types of compostable bags.

  1. Compostable will biodegrade in a commercial compost facility. Look for the Australian Standard number (AS 4736-2006) on the label.
  2. Home compostable is the best option if you have a home compost bin. Look for the Australian Standard number (AS 5810-2010) on the label.

There are around 150 Industrial Composting and Organics Recycling facilities in Australia. Some councils provide composting facilities through their kerbside waste collections either through green organics and garden waste bin or through dedicated organic recycling service. You can find composting facilities here

So what’s the best type of bag to use? A reusable one! Our organic cotton canvas tote bag is super versatile, it can be used for shopping, the beach or even as an everyday tote bag. The best part is it’s only $20.