Biodegradable vs Photodegradable vs Compostable

This post is a long time coming. With many different companies talking about a greener packaging they have I have gotten confused about what actually is environmentally friendly packaging. Then after visiting the plastic recycling centre in Scotland and hearing all about plastic recycling and whether biodegradable plastic fits into plastic recycling, I found out some new information. Once when looking at a seemingly green website I checked their packaging which they claimed to be great for the environment as it is photodegradable. Was it greenwashing or was it just ignorance, I don’t know, so I decided to find out properly what these packaging words mean that are floating around. I certainly don’t know everything, but I did research into multiple sources to find the most reliable information. I hope it will help some of you understand these words as well. And I am talking about the packaging connecting to food more than anything else, but it does correlate to other industries as well.

Biodegradable vs Photodegradable vs Compostable - byLiiL

Photodegradable

Photodegradable means that it will decompose with sunlight, meaning it will break into smaller pieces when subjected to light. The big problem with photodegradable packaging is that it sounds like it would be a good option for the environment, however, nearly everything in the world will decompose, the question is how quickly will it decompose and whether it will leave any harmful substances when it does. Some products may take thousands of years to decompose and in many cases when they decompose they release harmful chemicals into the environment and the waterways. The fact that something is photodegradable doesn’t tell much about the product, other than it requires sunlight to do so.

Biodegradable vs Photodegradable vs Compostable - byLiiL

Biodegradable

Biodegradable means that the decomposing happens when the items are subject to living organisms such as fungi or bacteria. In general, biodegradable is a term associated with green packaging, and it’s been considered as a great alternative because what comes from nature goes back. However, biodegradable doesn’t always mean it comes from nature.

There are several terms that all can be confused with each other, but don’t actually mean the same thing; biodegradable plastic, bioplastic and biodegradable materials such as paper. Biodegradable plastic is essentially plastic that is designed to decompose quickly by adding additives to them, and bioplastic is plastic made out of natural materials such as corn starch. Both of these are essentially plastics as they are made out of polymers, but each of these materials behaves differently when decomposing, it takes them varied times to decompose and they require different environments for decomposing often high temperatures and possibly even UV lights. Biodegradable does not mean we can throw the items with an easy conscience into the bin, as the landfill is not an optimum environment for them to decompose and instead the decomposing could release methane gas. Nor can we throw them in the compost without knowing what they are actually made out of or whether they are suitable for home or industrial composting (more on that in composting section).

 

Biodegradable Plastic

The big problem with biodegradable is that it is often misconceived as a natural material that is better for the environment, but this is a generalisation. Lately biodegradable plastic has been in the news for all the soda bottles which were contributing to the oceans microplastic problem because the plastic degraded quickly but only into small pieces instead of disappearing completely. If packaging is market as biodegradable it really requires further information on in what conditions is it biodegradable and whether it leaves harmful residues when it is biodegraded. In a sense, biodegradable is a buzz word as it doesn’t inform consumers of what they need to do with the packaging. It could require industrial composting and often it cannot be recycled with other plastics as it rather contaminates them. Biodegradable products are not regulated.

 

Bioplastic

Bioplastics, on the other hand, are derived from renewable sources such as corn starch, sugarcane, bacteria etc. Bioplastic can be made into PLA which is compostable in the right environment or PET which is not compostable, so whether bioplastic is compostable is dependant on what kind of plastic is created with it. This also brings the question of how to dispose of it, as PLA could potentially be put into a compost bin but it would contaminate the plastic recycling making it unrecyclable and PET would contaminate the compost but could possibly be recycled with conventional PET plastic.

As bioplastic sounds like an excellent alternative there are some serious environmental consequences. To make bioplastic a lot of crops is grown which requires intensive agriculture, which is not modified in the same way as food agriculture is and it can lead to soil erosion and fertilizer runoff. On top of the machinery that is used in agriculture, possible deforestation and space it takes from food agriculture. Bioplastic made out of bacteria although was the first known bioplastic invented in 1926, is still rarely used.

Biodegradable vs Photodegradable vs Compostable - byLiiL

Compostable

Compostable means naturally derived products that can be put amongst decaying natural substances to decompose by microorganisms eventually turning into nutrient-rich substance. There are two types of compostable products; they can either be composted in a home compost or they need to a special environment that only industrial composting can create.

Composting is a fairly efficient way to process natural waste with great benefits. Compost is a great natural fertiliser that reduces soil erosion, controls ground moisture and weeds and restores soil fertility.

Problems with compost result when the compost is contaminated with synthetic substances or with materials that have toxic dyes for example, or if the home compost is contaminated with other compostable material that requires industrial composting. Food ingredients are quite simple to understand that they are compostable, but the packaging is not quite so simple. There are more rules regarding marking on the packaging about compostability because the packaging needs to be tested according to the compost standards whether it is compostable. That is why, in the UK, most home composts are said to only accept food compost, as any kind of packaging could make people confused about what can be composted and it could easily be contaminated. One issue I have with the UK compost is that they do not even seem to take tissues, but they do take teabags which have plastic in them. So if you are reading this, stop putting tea bags into your compost unless you are 100% sure it doesn’t have plastic in it.

When it comes to food packaging compostable is one of the most sensible options, as food contaminated the plastic and the paper, which makes them unrecyclable. When the packaging is compostable and it has food scraps in it, it all just goes into the same bin. Compostable packaging is regulated and therefore if you see their standards on the packaging you know what you are buying into and how to dispose of the packaging. However, if compostable items are sent to the landfill they produce biogas and methane which are not great for the environment.

These are some of the labels that you can find on packaging which is compostable, but there might be others which should be clearly marked on the packaging.

At the moment I am excited about Vegware which is a Scottish company supplying certified compostable packaging worldwide, Alterwaste for coming up with compostable new solutions to food waste and Percol for having their coffee packet in compostable coffee bags. What companies are you excited about?

With love,

Lii

Packaging photos are from Oleg Magni from Pexels.

Other articles you might be interested in:

Doing Small Changes Won’t Save the Planet – But It’s a Start

Is Recycling Sustainable

World Recycling Week

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Sustainable News of August 2018

Climate Change

Earth At Risk Of Entering ‘Hot House’ State From Which There Is No Return, Scientists Warn – One of the possible futures for our planet if we are not rapidly doing something to prevent it.

Rising Heat Will Cost The Poorest Countries Billions Of Dollars A Year – Heath exhaustion doesn’t happen to only us living in Europe or the US where we are not used to such warm temperatures, it also happens to those who are used to them.

Hotter Climate Means Hungrier Insects Will Munch Millions More Tons Of Crops By 2050 – The one thing we didn’t even think about climate change.

Sustainable News of August 2018 - byLiiL

Social

New Passport Checks For Families Are Sexist, Backward Step – In a modern world where we think we are moving forward with feminist issues we stumble upon new ones when legislations fight other crimes.

Why The World Needs More Female Leaders In Health Care – Whilst they occupy the most roles in health care females only have a small portion of leadership roles.

Reversing Burundi’s Pregnant Schoolgirl Ban Is Not Enough, Activists Say – Although a great start as the girls will have greater potential to earn a better living for their families in the future, it is still not concentrating on sexual exploitation.

Diversity In Sustainability – Addie writes with great enthusiasm and good points why sustainability should matter to everybody, not only white women.

This 9-Year-Old South African Author Has a Message We All Need To Hear – It’s so inspiring to see young children to take such initiative and show their enthusiasm to learning and bettering themselves as well as others lives!

Fake Foods Are Threatening South Africa’s Most Vulnerable People – Yes you read it correctly, fake foods or counterfeit foods are allegedly being sold around South Africa to the poorest population with serious health implications.

How Bikes Helped Cut Malaria Deaths by 96% in This Zambia District – As simple a thing as bikes can help poor nations and communities to get access to health and other services.

Air Pollution Is Destroying Your Intelligence, Study Finds – So we should probably do something about it.

 

Plastic

Iceland Is The First UK Supermarket To Sell Plastic Free Chewing Gum – And by this, they do not mean the packaging but the actual gum that you chew. Who would’ve thought that it is even legal to have petroleum-based substances in our consumables? Now you definitely don’t want to swallow it.

Decomposing Plastic Revealed As Hidden Source Of Greenhouse Gas Emissions – It shouldn’t come as a surprise.

UK Plastic Pact Is Central To Forming A Circular Economy – In the mids of all the plastic fears this article tells about a pragmatic approach to tackle the plastic problem. Although, it discusses the circular approach it still doesn’t pinpoint how customers will be involved in it, or how they will make sure no toxic chemicals will be left in the recycled plastics.

This Is The Single Greatest Cause Of Ocean Trash – Lately, we have been hearing about cigarette buts and there is a reason behind it. Maybe it would be time to regulate this.

Sustainable News of August 2018 - byLiiL

Recycling

Down With Upcycling? – With so many companies using waste products to make new products are they just using new sources of materials or are they thinking of the whole lifecycle of the product until the end?

 

Food

EU Households Waste Over 17 Billion Kg Of Fresh Fruit And Vegetables a Year – That is an astounding number and we all should start checking whether we actually eat all of the fruit and veg in our households.

Glyphosate Found In Breakfast Cereal In the US – Also found in the UK (especially in bread) as farmers keep using the pesticide before harvest so it is more likely to stay in our food. Buy organic to keep away from the carcinogen and if you want to help affect change in this in the UK you can donate money to Soil Association.

 

Fashion

France Is About To Ban Stores From Throwing Away Unsold Clothing – The idea is that the stores could give the clothes to charities and although this would be a great idea, I don’t think the volume of clothing that would go to charities would do good for either of the industries, I can almost see history repeating what happened to fashion outlets. It is important to do something about the volume of clothing that is thrown away by retailers and brands, but I am not sure if gifting them to charities is the way to go forward.

Why This Factory Is Making Its Factory Wages Public – An excellent initiative that will hopefully be shared by many other brands and bring even more visibility to this problem. Although, I don’t think it should only be factory workers wages, everybody in the company and the supply chain to provide a proper comparison.

Everlane Is Launching ‘Clean Silk’ In a Move Toward Greater Sustainability – The company’s plans are great and I am impressed with how they are reducing harmful chemicals from the production, however, not sure why there was no talk about using peace silk, only organic, which would’ve made the silk even more sustainable.

Shoppers Are Buying Clothes Just For The Instagram Pic, And Then Returning Them – This article talks about a deep-rooted problem in the fashion industry to which Instagram, OOTD and a new outfit for each pic are a fuel. If clothes can be even more disposable than before how can we ever change the fashion industry?

Adidas Launches FW’18 Collection Made Of Recycled Polyester, Organic Cotton – It’s great to hear that the brand is making changes to their ranges, however, this range is designed by Stella McCartney, I would like to see them changing completely to more sustainable materials!

Stella McCartney Evasive On Unsold Stock Issue – For a company that supports sustainability I am surprised and saddened that it is not more transparent on their own supply chains.

Sustainable News of August 2018 - byLiiL

Ecosystems

Effects of Overfishing On Ocean Health – This describes very well the different problems overfishing has on marine life and it’s ecosystems.

Why Are Elephants Important To African Ecosystem – Although I’ve always thought they are important I never quite knew how important they are! Let’s save them all!

Climate Change’s Latest Casualty: Cute, Tiny Puffin – Unfortunately with the ocean animals are finding it harder to find their food and have to travel longer to get to their source of nutrition.

Scientists Just Discovered A Coral Reef Off The Coast of South Carolina – And it needs to be protected against oil and gas industry!

Top Performing Microbes Could Be Key To Sustainable Agriculture – Taking an example from nature at it’s best!

 

I think I might need to start doing these weekly as there are so many links to go through. What do you think weekly or monthly?

With love,

Lii