The start of a new fashion revolution
To begin establishing the differences between one term and another, we must start from the premise that something degradable is something that breaks down, therefore, something biodegradable is something that breaks down when in contact with the environment. In other words, through the metabolism of microorganisms. As far as compostable materials are concerned, these are also biodegradable, only they do so in a shorter period of time — 8 to 12 weeks — and under other conditions. The big difference is that something that is compostable, unlike something that is biodegradable, ends up not only degrading, but also becoming compost or fertilizer. This cycle of organic matter ends by preventing soil contamination or emissions caused by the transformation of waste material. Biodegradable or compostable refers to the processes that products or materials have gone through during manufacturing and gives us very important information on how the end of their life cycle should be managed in order to discard them properly and in the corresponding waste management system.
A biodegradable material can be broken down into natural chemical elements through the use of biological agents such as bacteria, plants or animals along with other physical agents such as the sun or water and under naturally occurring environmental conditions that transform these substances into nutrients, carbon dioxide, water and biomass. That is, simple and harmless compounds that serve as nutrients in the environment. Through this process, the material is fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces until finally no physical evidence of its existence remains. Linen and cotton take between 1 and 5 months to biodegrade, while wool can take between 1 and 5 years. The time depends, to a great extent, on the treatments and processes to which the material has been subjected to and which may even prevent its complete biodegradation by providing compounds that are not assimilable by the environment. In the case of cotton, the material itself is biodegradable, but if a treatment is made that includes heavy metals, the chemical substances that are produced in its decomposition are pollutants.
The fact that a material is compostable means that it can be broken down by organisms (i.e. biologically) producing carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass in a controlled period of time. In nature, this transformation occurs constantly giving rise to humus, a dark colored soil, which is essential for the proper maintenance of the ecosystem. Composting is normally done as a process of controlled acceleration of the decomposition of organic waste and the product obtained is known as compost. The time it takes for material to be composted depends, among other factors, on the decomposing organisms involved in the process; whether they are microorganisms or macro-organisms such as earthworms, the temperature and humidity. In this way, we find materials that can be composted domestically and industrially and others that can only be composted industrially.
According to the standards of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), for a material to be considered compostable it must break down at least 90% of its total mass within a maximum of 6 months, be completely fragmented into particles smaller than 2mm x 2mm after 12 weeks, control the eco toxicity of humus and comply with detailed standards and contain no heavy metals. Composting becomes one of the most interesting concepts for sustainability, since it manages the end of life of the product with a circular approach “from cradle to cradle” (see previous post on circular fashion).
A biodegradable material is not always compostable, but a compostable material is always biodegradable. Also, a biodegradable material can take a long time to decompose in nature, so the fact that it is biodegradable does not justify it being disposed of carelessly.
This being the case, biomaterials and circular fashion give textile production a new guideline that is much more sustainable, updated and clean for the planet.