biodegradable vs compostable - what's the difference?

posted by Michelle Pedreiras on

Category: News

biodegradable vs compostable - what's the difference?

The terminology and communication around composability is a tricky one – it’s taken long enough for even some of us to get our heads around! The labels ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ are often mistakenly thought of as interchangeable… but they’re not. So, we thought it was worth pulling a blog together to help shed some light on what each means.  

let’s kick things off with biodegradable:

If something is biodegradable, it means it’ll eventually break down into smaller and smaller pieces by natural processes. Depending on what it is, it could take anything from 6 months to 1000 years to break down. This means that (technically) almost any product could be labelled ‘biodegradable’ because most things will break down at some point in the future, whether they’re derived from nature (like a banana skin) or made from chemicals. Even some conventional plastics will eventually break down in to smaller (sometimes toxic) components. So the term “biodegradable” can be misleading and biodegradable materials are not necessarily compostable.

now let’s move on to compostable materials…

Compostable materials are materials that have been certified to break down completely into non-toxic components (water, carbon dioxide, and biomass) that will not harm the environment, given the right conditions. The time it takes for something to break down depends largely on the product itself and the composting conditions.

Some materials can decompose in your home compost (like loose tea leaves and apple cores) but not all compostable materials are suitable for composting at home. Bio-plastics (compostable alternatives to conventional plastic packaging like our tea temples) are fully plant-derived and fully compostable but they require a higher level of heat, water, oxygen and micro-organisms to fully break down than what your home compost can provide. For anything to be legally labelled compostable, it has to have been certified to break down in industrial (council) composting facilities within 180 days. If you send our tea temples and the clear inner bag within our cardboard boxes to your local council for industrial composting, they will break them down within 12 weeks. 

The good news for all you keen home composters though, is that our NatureFlex packaging (the clear inner bag) is also home compostable and can safely be put in your compost bin at home. It might feel a little odd at first, but trust us, it’s the future! The time it takes to break down will depend on the conditions of your compost at home.

While we're here, we thought it would also be useful to explain some other key words that crop up from time to time:

corn starch

Corn starch is a natural carbohydrate extracted from corn. You may recognise the name – it's often used in cooking in the form of a fine, white powder as a thickening agent for sauces, gravies, soups and casseroles. It’s a highly versatile substance which can be used to create solid structures, too. The material we use to make our tea temples (and the string attached) is derived from corn starch – the corn starch is fermented to make poly lactic acid, which sounds a bit scary but rest assured it's not! This results in a material which resembles nylon but is made from bio materials, meaning it'll fully break down in industrial composting conditions and can be put in your food waste bin for the council to process.

recyclable

If something is recyclable, it means it can be broken down into its raw materials and repurposed so it can be used again. The outer cartons that store our tea temples, 30g matcha tins, and matcha sachets are made from FSC-certified paper that can be recycled. Our tins (i.e., matcha 30g tins) are made from tinplate and aluminium, and can also be recycled.

reusable

Reusable products are not the same as recyclable products. If something is reusable, it means that after it has served its original purpose it can be used again without any kind of treatment. The outer cartons that store our tea temples, 30g matcha tins, and matcha sachets are safe to reuse, as are our tins of tea, matcha tins, and loose-tea pouches – although they might want to give them a quick rinse first! Why not give your stylish teapigs packaging a second (and third, and fourth, and fifth…) life by using it to store other food items, buttons, stationery, or whatever else you see fit!

polypropylene

Some of the tea bags sold by the UK’s leading brands contain the plastic polypropylene, meaning they are not fully biodegradable. While we would never, ever use polypropylene to make our tea temples, it works very well for the clear inner bag we used to use to store them. At regular temperatures, it is safe, hygienic and airtight. It's now widely recycled, so if you have some of our older packs of tea, check with your local council if they accept it. We have, however, invested in switching over to a new wonder-material called Natureflex, which you can find out more about below.

NatureFlex

NatureFlex is a wondrous material created by the geniuses at Futamura. They managed to figure out a way of converting wood pulp into airtight, transparent packaging. The wood they use is from sustainably-managed plantations and the end product is both biodegradable and compostable. We use NatureFlex for the clear inner bags we use to store our tea temples, so you can compost it at home.

composite

A composite material is made from two or more constituent materials. These constituent materials are usually different physically and chemically from one another, and when combined into a composite material, it tends to take on characteristics different from those of its constituents. Composite products often pose a problem for recycling, as they must first be broken into their original materials. Our loose tea pouches are a composite made from paper and polyethylene. Although these are both recyclable materials, many councils refuse to process composites. Our matcha sachets are also currently a composite. We are working extremely hard to remedy this problem and hope to switch to new recyclable packaging for these two products very soon.

FSC certified paper

FSC stands for the Forest Stewardship Council. They are an incredible organisation who only source wood for production from forests that are sustainably managed. We use their paper to make the outer cartons of our tea temples, 30g matcha tins, and matcha sachets. In doing so, we know that the forests the paper comes from will be protected and conserved for generations to come. FSC certified paper is reusable, biodegradable, and recyclable, so we recommend putting it in with your home recycling.