Compostable Glossary

There has been a large growth of eco-friendly and sustainable products seen in many industries over the last decade. With this growth comes a lot of new lingo and some of it can be confusing. So we created a compostable glossary to help you navigate the industry and avoid pitfalls. In it you find some of the most common expressions and words used along with their explanations.

This is a chemical process in which materials are metabolized to CO2, water and biomass, with the help of microorganisms. The rate of this chemical process depends on a variety of factors including conditions of the environment. Conditions are humidity, temperature, location, presence of microorganisms, etc.

The environment is the place in which the biodegradation takes place. Examples are indoor home composting, industrial composting plant, garden compost, water, soil etc.
The material itself can also have an effect on the environment and conditions.
 
All this results in a process and outcome that can vary since many factors are subject to change. Such as a change in temperature and humidity caused by a change of season.
If a product or material is to be recycled organically (composted) it has to be biodegradable. The ability to compost is a characteristic of a product or material. This characteristic allows it to biodegrade under specific conditions. Examples of these are timeframe, certain temperature etc.
 
In order to make accurate and specific claims about compostability, the location (home, industrial) and timeframe need to be specified. These specific conditions are described in what is called standards. For a product or material to certified and labelled Home Compostable it must comply with the standard.
 
Want to read about which certificates our mailers have been awarded certifying them as home compostable, then click here.
Industrial composting is a controlled aerobic decomposition of organic materials by microorganisms. The result is CO2, water and biomass (compost), like with home composting.
 
The main difference between industrial and home composting is the control over the environment. In industrial composting facilities the temperatures are much higher and kept stable. Whereas in home composting temperatures are lower and less constant. Home composting is also influenced by many other factors such as weather conditions. This makes industrial composting a faster process. It’s also able to compost larger volumes of waste at one time.
 
As with home composting there are standards with specific conditions. A product or material must comply with these standards to be certified. Examples of these standards are the US Standard (ASTM D6400) and The European Standard (EN 13432), our mailers of course comply with both.
 
You can learn about the certificates and the testing process by clicking here.
Oxo-degradable or so-called ‘oxo-fragmentable’ products are truly a pitfall of the packaging industry. They are produced and sold in many countries around the world. And they often come with misleading brand names and terminology. The public is led to believe that they are a good alternative to traditional plastic products. That they will somehow safely biodegrade in nature.
 
Oxo-degradable products are made from conventional plastics. During manufacturing they are supplemented with specific additives (TDPA™, d2w etc.), typically 2-3%. This allows it to mimic biodegradation. But these additives will not result in a fully degradable material. They will only facilitate a fragmentation of the material into very small fragments that remain in the environment.
 
On the 6th of November 2017, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation issued a statement proposing a worldwide ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging. This statement that was endorsed by over 150 organizations around the world. Signatories of the Foundation’s statement include PepsiCo, British Plastics Federation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Marks & Spencer among many others.
 
Following the announcement of the statement Roger Baynham, Chairman of the British Plastics Federation Recycling Group, said: “The BPF Recycling Group has, for some years, raised serious concerns about the impact of oxo-degradable products on the environment. And the recycling sector is delighted that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation fully endorses this view.”
 
Erin Simon, Director of Sustainability Research and Development, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), added: “Using oxo-degradable additives is not a solution for litter. Their use in waste management systems will likely cause negative outcomes for the environment and communities,”
 
In conclusion, significant evidence indicates that oxo-degradable plastics do not degrade into harmless residues. They instead fragment into tiny pieces of plastic, contributing to microplastic pollution. This will pose a risk to the oceans and other ecosystems, potentially for decades to come. Oxo-degradable materials are not and probably never will be certified compostable. At least not according to the internationally recognized standards such as AS 4736, EN 13432, or ASTM D6400.
Enzyme-mediated plastics are another one of the pitfalls of the packaging industry. They are not bio-based which means they are not bioplastics. Adding to this they have not been proven to be biodegradable or compostable in accordance with any standard. Enzyme-mediated plastics are just conventional plastics (e.g. fossil-based PE) enriched with small amounts of an organic additive.
 
The idea is that the degradation process is initiated by microorganisms consuming these additives. It is then claimed that this process expands to the non-biodegradable PE. This should then make the entire material degradable. The claim then is that after some time the plastic will begin to visually disappear. In the end it should be completely converted into carbon dioxide and water. But, this has yet to be proven by any available study.
 
As with oxo-degradable products, misleading brand names and terminology is heavily used. The public is lead to believe that enzyme-mediated plastics are somehow a viable alternative to traditional plastic products. Some examples of this is “this plastic degrades faster” and “makes conventional plastics like PE or PP biodegradable”. Often seen together with “organic additives” and “eco-friendly”. Most enzyme-mediated plastics usually neither look nor feel different from conventional plastics. So if it feels like regular plastics and carries some of those claims, it is likely to be enzyme-mediated plastics.
 
In conclusion, no proof for the degradation process has been provided by any producer of these materials. The explanation for the degradation is only a theoretical concept, which has yet to be backed up by any verifiable proof. This makes the environmentally beneficial effects highly questionable.