What is the difference between ‘biodegradable & compostable’?

(Happy International Composting Week)

It’s International Compost Week this week and so it’s a great opportunity to explain a little bit about the afterlife of South Africa’s first & homegrown organic & biodegradable menstrual brand Sheba Feminine.

Because as menstruators, the average woman uses between 15000 and 17000 tampons/ pads in her life, she creates between 150kg and 190kg of menstrual product waste in a lifetime.

You’re reading this because you are concerned about how you can reduce your impact on the planet. So here’s a way to reduce your 165kg of waste.

Biodegradable and compostable are words often used interchangeably, but there’s a world of difference between them. To understand the difference between the two let’s break down both words first.

We often see the word ‘biodegradable’ on some products that we buy, such as soap and shampoo. But what does it mean? Anything biodegradable will break down quickly and safely into mostly harmless compounds. But what makes a substance biodegradable? Anything that is plant-based, animal-based or natural mineral-based product is usually biodegradable. However, they will break down at different rates depending on the original material it’s made out of and how much it has been processed.

‘Biodegradables’ are anything that undergoes degradation resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae.

‘Compostable’ means that a product is capable of breaking down into natural elements in a compost environment. Because it’s broken down into its natural elements it causes no harm to the environment and the breakdown process usually takes around 90 days. Compostables are anything that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with other compostable materials and leaves no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.

Although biodegradable materials return to nature and can disappear completely they sometimes leave behind metal residue, on the other hand, compostable materials create something called humus that is full of nutrients and great for plants. In summary, compostable products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit. That is, when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants.

Many items that are labeled as “biodegradable” are not accepted by composting facilities because they take too long to break down and/or will not decompose entirely, disrupting the composting cycle. BUT, as Sheba prides herself on supplying only ORGANIC this points to the fact that Sheba’s products are made from natural plant matter and is BOTH compostable AND biodegradable.

Here’s how you do it.

OPTION 1: Small home compost system (no garden)

If you have a home composting system, you’ll place your used Sheba tampons, pads & pantiliners into your composter with other organic matter and let it compost for at least 60 days. If you don’t have a composter on your property, then consider getting a Bokashi home bin like this one.

It doesn’t smell, even less so than your actual kitchen bin tbh.
Once done, you may want to take the opportunity to repot your plants…
Step 1: Lift your plants out of their pots and pat the soil into a bucket, add the compost juices/ any plant food, with water and mix around.
Step 2: Place a layer of soil between 3-5cm at the bottom of your pot (depending on the plant), place some composted matter on top of that followed by another layer of soil.
Step 3: Create an opening and place your plant back into the pot, pressing soil tight around your plant to hold it in place. End off with a good amount of water and ensure your top soil is not dry for the next few days to come.

OPTION 2: Garden composting without the digester (with garden/ vegetable patch)

Composting is just about placing organic matter together in an enclosed environment with some brand fibre (the ‘brown’ / carbon that you need) and letting natural processes break it down into nutrients you can put back into the earth.

After collecting your compost, if you have access to any garden or natural environment, dig a trench like this, and drop your compost into the trench, covering it with soil & allowing it to break down for at least 2 weeks. Carbon, like your tampons/pads and other brown matter, will take longer to compost so leave for 60 days to fully be digested. Your plants will love you even more for their nutrient dense snack.

If you think about it, there are amazing minerals and nutrients in a human body that the earth doesn’t receive purely from organic plant matter so don’t think ‘gross’ when composting your used products, think you’re welcome soil, now do your thang.