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Biodegradable vs. Compostable vs. OXO-Degradable Plastics

Today, you will find millions of bioplastic products labelled with the terms “biodegradable”, “compostable”, and “oxo-degradable”. But what do these terms mean?

Although most manufacturers use these terms interchangeably, they are quite different. For all we care, these terms are affiliated with the disposal of bioplastic products.

Consumers need to understand these terminologies if they want to make the right purchasing decisions and keep a safe environment.

This article explains the differences between biodegradable, compostable and oxo-degradable plastics.

Let’s start by defining these three terminologies.

a. What are Biodegradable Plastics?

By definition, biodegradable is the ability of a certain product or object to be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Biodegradability means the end of life of an object by microorganisms. So biodegradable plastics are a subset of bioplastics.

They are plastic products which after undergoing degradation (with the help of microorganisms), are converted into water (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and biomass in a safe, effective and timely manner.

As our population continues to increase, more trash is been added into the sea and ground each year. And because the biodegradability of plastic is dependent on the chemical properties of the polymer, environmentally-friendly product packaging has emerged as a packaging solution.

This is because they do not create the same level of waste and toxicity that synthetic materials (from conventional plastics) are known to create.


b. What are Compostable Plastics?

Composting is the environment under which biodegradability occurs. When composting plastics, the nature of the environment, the degree of biodegradation (microbial utilization), and the time frame in which it occurs are specified in EN or ASTM standard.

Hence, compostable plastics are plastics that have been vetted and certified by a third-party to comply with international standards such as EN 13432 (in Europe) or ASTM D6400 (in the United States of America) for biodegradation in an industrial composting facility environment.

According to EN 13432 or ASTM D6400 standards, materials in an industrial composting facility will disintegrate within 84 days and biodegrade at least 90% within 6 months (180 days).

At the end of 180 days, approximately 10% of solid material in the form of water, biomass, and valuable compost will be left. These standards also ensure that the remaining compost will be toxin-free and harmless to the facility and the environment.


c. What are OXO-Degradable Plastics?

OXO degradable plastic bags use metal salt to initiate and speed up the degradation process. The process converts OXO degradable plastic bags into small fragments of plastics (called microplastics) that are no longer harmful to the environment.

They do this faster than the microorganisms responsible for the biodegradable process. However, these microplastics don’t break down at the polymer or molecular level like the biodegradable and compostable plastics.

The end product lacks oxygen and can still be further broken down by living organisms and bacteria if left in the environment indefinitely. The negative side to oxo-degradable plastics is that some people use Cobalt to speed up the reaction.

In this case, Cobalt poses a threat to the environment – it comes with a high risk of environmental pollution.



1. Time Taken to Breakdown

Given a natural environment and enough time, every material will biodegrade. 

However, biodegradable bags and compostable bags take a longer time to disintegrate while oxo-degradable bags take a shorter period to breakdown.

2. Natural Process

Although they share slight differences, both biodegradation and composting involve the natural breakdown of organic matter into tiny fragments with the help of microorganisms.

On the other hand, oxo-degradable plastics require chemical substances such as additives to help breakdown plastic at a faster pace.

3. Risk Evaluation

Since biodegradation and composting involves natural procedures, they are safe for our environment. 

Introducing metal salts to stimulate the degradation process comes with a high risk of environmental pollution.


Among these three terminologies, the packaging labelled “compostable” ensures that your waste is disintegrated and will leave no toxic residues at most 180 days under compost conditions.

The issue with the term “biodegradable” is that it has no defined timeframe or condition. Will the biodegradable plastic bags disintegrate? Yes, but it could take up to a hundred years to fully break down. OXO-degradable plastics come with major concerns.

Although it will break down its materials into microplastics, it contributes largely to environmental pollution.

For more information regarding plastic bags, including private label plastic bag printing services, please feel free to get in touch with our specialists.