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A guide to Sustainability Terminology

Nowadays we are becoming more and more aware of the environmental impact our carbon footprint and daily lives are having on our planet; trying to build more sustainable habits will be sure to lead us to a healthier world. While it is an admirable and very necessary endeavour, it is also a very confusing one. Terms like “biodegradable” and “organic” are thrown around all over the place, but how many of us actually know precisely what they mean? 

Knowing what impact we are having on the environment is the key to living sustainably, and the devil is truly in the detail. In order to make a meaningful difference, help our ecosystem and reduce waste, it is important to first learn about the terms used to define sustainability. We have put together the ultimate glossary of sustainable & environmental terms to help you successfully navigate the muddy waters of eco-friendly packaging and products. 

Biodegradable

“Biodegradable” is possibly the most used and simultaneously, the vaguest label. If something is biodegradable, that simply means it can break down in natural elements. 

The prefix “bio” indicates that a product will degrade through a biological process. What’s left is carbon dioxide, water and biomass. 

Sounds eco-friendly, no? There are a few caveats. Firstly, any product will eventually break down, whether it’s plastic or wood, even if it takes 10,000 years. Since the definition of biodegradable doesn’t include a time limit (it is, however, assumed that it takes less than 1,000 years), many of us assume a biodegradable material causes no harm to the environment. Companies often exploit this vague definition. 

The time it takes for something to decompose also depends hugely on the decomposing conditions. Most waste ends up sitting in landfills, where there isn’t enough water, light, bacteria and oxygen to move the process along. As waste decomposes in landfills it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more harmful for global warming than carbon dioxide. That being said, biodegradable materials are still a better choice than plastic-based ones.

Organic 

The organic label is given to any material or product which was grown and processed without the use of any GMO, synthetic pesticides or fertilisers. Organic animal products like dairy, eggs and meat also usually mean the animals were not given growth hormones or antibiotics. The term organic is, therefore, a fancy way of saying “natural”; however, for a product to be labelled as organic, it needs to be certified. 

The Soil Association, which is the UK’s largest organic certification body, defines organic as “lower levels of pesticides, higher levels of animal welfare, more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment and no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers”.  

Water-soluble 

Water-soluble materials are currently at the forefront of sustainable innovation. By dissolving almost immediately when placed in water, nothing ends up in landfills, no microplastic particles contribute to marine pollution and no greenhouse gases are emitted. All that’s left is harmless residue; water and biomass (animal or plant material) that can safely be poured down the drain. 

Bio-based

Bio-based materials are partly or wholly derived from biomass; which is either synthesised or naturally occurring. Bio-based products are a sustainable option because they often require less water and energy to manufacture, they come from renewable resources that don’t rely on oil and they produce less toxic waste. Currently, sugarcane is one of the most commonly used plants to make bio-based plastic.

Compostable

Compostable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably by companies, largely because both are meant to return to the earth safely. All compostable materials are biodegradable, but not the other way around. The main difference is that compostable materials ramp it up a notch and not only do they not damage soil composition, they also provide it with nutrients once they have broken down. It’s like the ultimate give-back scheme. Unlike other biodegradable materials, those which are compostable also break down after a defined amount of time (12 weeks). 

For compostable materials to properly degrade they have to be added to the compost heap; this requires specific conditions dependent on drainage and sunlight. Although it’s possible to DIY this, home compost can find it difficult to reach the temperature needed to break down a lot of compostable materials, so it’s best to trash them in your food waste bin so that they can be industrially composted. But before doing so, check that your local council has industrial composting facilities available! 

While biodegradable materials can break down in landfills, compostable materials prefer particular conditions in order to degrade faster. When compostable waste ends up in a landfill, it requires oxygen, bacteria & moisture to biodegrade. If it’s not exposed to these conditions, it’ll stay in the landfill for a greater amount of time. 

Compostable materials are a little more high-maintenance, but ultimately it’s worth the extra effort. 

Natural Fibres

Natural fibres are substances produced by animals and plants, that can be spun into thread, rope or filaments and be bound, knitted, or woven. Hemp, silk and cotton are the most common. 

The best thing about natural fibres is that they’re renewable sources. Simply put, this means they can be replenished or harvested over and over again without depleting or damaging the environment. Hemp, for example, only requires sunlight and rainwater to grow. It’s basically the ultimate low-maintenance plant. 

Recyclable

Simply put, a recyclable product can be broken down into its raw form and repurposed for further use. In an ideal world this would be great, but material composition is a huge complication in how recyclable something actually is. With many different variants and types of plastics used and the complexity involved in accurately sorting them all, plastics often become “downcycled” into a lower grade product.

Furthermore, with much packaging produced, different materials are layered and glued on top of one another, which is why a great deal of plastic packaging isn’t fully recyclable. 

Recyclable is another popular term that sounds super green, but how recyclable something actually is comes down to us and whether we make the effort to recycle it. 80% of the rubbish we throw away can be recycled, so it’s up to us to read the label and dispose of it correctly, This once again, also depends on your local council. We strive to make our packaging as sustainable as possible, so all our boxes and paper goods are both recycled and recyclable.

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