Biodegradable vs. Compostable Fashion
In a world where fashion brands are attempting to give back to the planet instead of using up all of our finite resources, we've been seeing the term biodegradable and compostable a lot. But, what is the actual difference?
Biodegradable and compostable are two terms that are used interchangeably a lot when talking about recycling, but there is a world of difference between the two! So let's break it down.
Anything labeled biodegradable has the ability to slowly break down until they’re able to be consumed on a microscopic level. Anything plant-based, animal-based or natural mineral-based products are usually biodegradable. So, for example, 100% organic cotton based jeans will biodegrade. However, they will break down at different rates depending on the original material it's made of and how much it has been processed.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) states that biodegradables are anything that undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.
What is not defined is how long an item takes to decompose to be considered biodegradable, which is something I believe should be regulated. This allows brands to use the term 'biodegradable' even if their product takes 200 years to decompose without consequences.
DON'T GET CONFUSED BY THE TERM BIO-BASED!
Bio-based fabrics might have been produced from naturally grown fibers, like cotton, but they might not be easily biodegradable after being manufactured into fabric. They can also include blended synthetics, which is not clearly stated when using "bio-based" in marketing collateral. For example, bio-based nylon might take up to 600 years to decompose.
Another concern with biodegradable fashion is what goes into the natural fibers. If synthetic dyes or finishing chemicals are used in the fabrics, toxins will be released into the environment during degradation. Natural dyes and natural fibers are the best for biodegrading and can also be composted, as well!
When an item reads compostable, this means a product is capable of breaking down into natural elements in a compost environment. Because it is broken down to only its natural elements, it causes no harm to the environment and can actually add nutrients back in leaving no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue. This process takes around 90 days to 2 years but of course, depends on the materials and conditions.
A pair of Wranglers that have decomposed leaving only synthetic fibers behind. Source Sean Gormley.
SO WHAT'S THE ACTUAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO?
It's definitely understandable that two get confused, but the main thing I note is that compostable items are biodegradable, but biodegradable doesn't mean it is compostable. Even though biodegradable materials return to nature and can disappear completely, they can sometimes leave unwanted residue, whereas, compostable materials create something called humus that is full of nutrients and great for plants. So when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, helping the growth of trees and plants.
What are the fibers you should be looking for in your jeans?
Jeans made with organic cotton, hemp, and Tencel are biodegradable and compostable. While the speed that these fibers degrade depends on the environmental conditions (amount of oxygen, water, temperature, pH, etc.) and construction of the fabric (weight, how tightly the fibers are packed together, etc.), at least we know it won't end up sitting in our landfills for thousands of years to come!
Come back next week for a deep dive into the different types of sustainable fibers that you should be looking for in your jeans! For now, STAY DILIGENT FRIENDS!