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The Breakdown: Understanding the Language of Decomposition

Making changes to live more sustainably can be overwhelming - there's a lot of complicated terms that can be hard to understand. Below are a couple of the broad terms that are important to understand, as well as a few ways you could change your habits to be a little kinder to our planet.


What is compost?

Compost is created when organic materials, like some foods, hair, or wood, decompose into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. The compost setting provides a healthy environment for microorganisms to break down organic materials, creating nutrient packed compost that can be used to enrich soil.

You can compost either at home, or find a commercial composting site near you. Composting at home is relatively easy, but it requires some time as well as dedicated yard space. Industrial composting enables anyone to compost, no matter their living situation, but might cost a bit more as some facilities require a service fee.

This is a comprehensive list for composting state to state:

Benefits of Composting:

Composting has three huge environmental impacts.

● Reduces Waste

Composting allows us to avoid sending foods and materials that are made from organic matter to landfills. Processing the waste in landfills is costly and it often takes years for matter to fully decompose. By composting you are providing organic matter the best possible environment to decompose which yields the quickest results and can help benefit your garden!

● Conserves Water

Research has shown that organic matter increases the amount of water that can be retained within soil. With a one percent increase in organic water, 20,000 more gallons of water can be held per acre.

● Reduce methane gasses

Methane gasses occur when food is disposed of via trash and sent to a landfill. This is because the food within trash is not receiving any oxygen, it goes through a process called anaerobic decomposition. A biogas made up of Methane and Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Both are greenhouse gasses that trap heat within our atmosphere and speed up the effects of climate change.

What can you compost:

● Fruits and vegetables

● Eggshells

● Coffee grounds and filters

● Tea bags, nut shells

● Shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper

● Grass clippings, yard trimmings, houseplants

● Hay and straw, leaves

● Sawdust, fireplace ashes, woodchips

● Wood chips

● Cotton and Wool Rags

● Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint

● Hair and fur


What are biodegradable materials?

Biodegradable materials have plant or animal origins. Biodegradable products are often made of starches and sugarcane. They break down faster than other products and often turn into carbon dioxide, water vapor and organic material that does not harm the environment. Typically they can be broken down by bacteria or fungi. In products such as biodegradable plastic bags, they often contain added microorganisms to help break down the plastic. In order for a product to biodegrade it must be in the correct environment to do so.

Biodegradable Materials at Home:

Like compost, when biodegradable material is thrown away and sent to a landfill, it produces biogas when being broken down, creating the same, harmful, greenhouse gasses. Biodegradable encompasses a wider range of materials, than composting. For example animal meat and bones are biodegradable, but not compostable. So, when disposing of these materials you can choose to compost them, recycle them or send them to a facility that can properly dispose of your biodegradable products.

● Fuel Efficiency

The synthesis of biodegradable plastic is much more efficient than the synthesis of petroleum based plastic, as most biodegradable plastics require 50% less energy to create than their oil based counterparts.

● Less Pollution

Most biodegradable products are compostable or recyclable, making it a lot more accessible for the average person to dispose of these materials in an environmentally conscious way. As more awareness is brought to finding more sustainable ways of living, more resources are made accessible to the general public.

Biodegradable Products:

● Meat and animal bone scraps

● Coffee grounds

● Printer paper

● Paper towels

● Toilet paper

● Paper plates, bowls and cups

● Parts of textbooks and notebooks

● Paper folders

● Bioplastics

● Cardboard boxes


What are Degradable Materials?

Degradable materials are typically oil based products that can be broken down through chemical reactions or after years in landfills. However, they never truly return to an organic state. Instead, they simply break apart into millions of microscopic pieces. These microscopic pieces can still cause serious harm to the environment because they can be consumed or ingested by various animals creating disruptions throughout the food chain. Typically, degradable materials contain harmful chemicals that help the plastic break down and disintegrate quickly. Degradable material must be thrown away in a general waste bin and can not be composted or recycled.

Degradable Products:

● Single use plastics (ex. Plastic silverware, water bottles, plastic plates)

● Batteries

● Glass

Understanding these three concepts is essential in understanding how to create lasting change that can positively impact the environment around us. Trying to source more day to day objects with compostable and biodegradable material (and disposing of it properly) can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, reduce the amount of waste entering landfills and can provide us a cleaner, healthier planet.


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