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Compostable, biodegradable and bio-based: what is the difference?

Written by Martin Meuldijk | Last update: 06-02-2021

Demand for compostable, biodegradable and bio-based products in horticulture is rising. The consumer is paying more and more attention to sustainability and environmental friendliness and a grower can respond to this in the form of biodegradable, bio-based and compostable growing and packaging materials. In practice, however, there often appears to be confusion about the difference between the terms compostable, biodegradable and bio-based. Hence our specialist explains what is what in this article. 

Organic products

In fact, the confusion starts with the term 'organic'. An organic product is a product of organic origin. An example of an organic product is an organic fertilizer. These are fertilizers that are completely made up of natural raw materials of vegetable or animal origin. In the EU, a product can be called organic when it is Skal-certified or has an EKO quality mark. 


So what is the difference between compostable, biodegradable and bio-based? When a material is compostable, it means that the material can be broken down in an industrial composting plant for at least 95%, within 12 weeks. In that instance, it complies with the EN 13432 standard for compostable materials and may, therefore, be called compostable. Examples thereof include materials that are made from starch. 


A material is biodegradable when fungi and bacteria can biologically degrade the material. The time it takes before something is broken down depends on the circumstances set out against time. For example, wood, cotton and cork are biodegradable, but it takes years before these materials are broken down completely. 


Bio-based means that a material is made of plastic, based on the residual streams of renewable, natural raw materials. It, therefore, complies with the EN 16575 standard. Examples are sugar-based types of plastic (PLA plastic). 

Bio-based materials are not always biodegradable or compostable. The term bio-based, therefore, refers to the origin of the material (and, contrary to the terms compostable and biodegradable, does not refer to the end of the chain). 

See also the video below of the Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR), for more information about bio-based plastics. 

Organic product: biodegradable or compostable?

So, is an organic product biodegradable or compostable? This depends on the time it takes for it to be broken down completely. In practice, there are organic products that are compostable (they need a maximum of 12 weeks to be broken down and may, therefore, be disposed of in the green waste stream) and products that are biodegradable (they need a longer time to be broken down and may, therefore, not be deposited in the green waste stream).

More information about compostable, biodegradable or bio-based

Do you have any questions about compostable, biodegradable or bio-based, or would you like advice? Then contact one of our crop rotation specialists, or ask your question using the form below. We'll respond within 24 hours on working days.

Martin MeuldijkAbout Martin Meuldijk

Martin Meuldijk has had more than 20 years of experience in the glass horticulture, nationally as well as internationally. Ever since 2016 he has been working at Royal Brinkman as a product specialist for the topics of Crop Rotation and Service Items. He likes to help growers to get the best results from their cultivation. His approach? ";Do what you say and say what you do: that is my motto. I attach great importance to always giving proper and honest advice."

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