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The Difference Between Biodegradable and Compostable Is Huge

Wondering what the difference is between biodegradable and compostable? Is there any difference? Well, it turns out, yes, there is a huge difference. Let me break it down for you.

The green market is growing, making it easier for environmentally-minded shoppers to find products that align with their values. According to Ethical Consumer, environmentally friendly spending has swelled to over £41bn a year, as UK consumers’ shopping habits increasingly reflect their concerns about the environment, animal welfare, social justice and human rights

Likewise, the number of products with environmental claims on their labels and websites is also increasing in a bid to attract a share of this green pound. And no doubt you will have spotted the word biodegradable on a number of self-proclaimed eco-friendly products.

However the term biodegradable isn’t a particularly helpful term when it comes to deciding what eco-friendly products to buy. Let’s have a look at what biodegradable actually means, and how it compares to it’s often confused cousin – compostable.

The difference between biodegradable and compostable - explained

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

Collins Dictionary defines biodegradable as “something that breaks down or decays naturally without any special scientific treatment“.

When used in relation to selling sustainable products, it’s certainly a term that sounds good. A product that decays naturally – what’s not to love? However, when you start to consider what that really means, it unveils a host of problems hiding behind a name.

The term biodegradable doesn’t mean that an item is compostable. Rather, it essentially means that an item can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces without any intervention from us. The trouble is, pretty much everything we use or create can be called biodegradable. This is because eventually, given the right conditions, everything will break down. From food waste to wooden products that may biodegrade or compost in a number of weeks or months. All the way through to plastic bags and even car tyres that could biodegrade in several hundred years or more. You wouldn’t call a car tyre compostable though, would you?

Plastic Bags and Biodegradation

Let’s look at plastic bags as an example. When plastic bags biodegrade, they don’t break down into natural components. Instead, biodegradable in this sense means that the plastic bag just breaks down into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces become microplastics – small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long. These microplastics become more problematic than the original carrier bag because you can’t clean up these tiny pieces. And what’s more, microplastic can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life, as well as human life.

Biodegradation Needs Certain Conditions to Work

The other trouble with the word biodegradable is also the caveat “in the right conditions” that isn’t in the Collins Dictionary definition, but is an important omission.

You see, objects often need certain things in order to biodegrade. Organic material, for example food, requires oxygen. This is because organic waste is broken down by bacteria, that require oxygen to be able to function. Food waste also requires warmth and water. The by-products of this form of composting – also known as aerobic biodegradation – are heat, water, and a small amount of carbon dioxide.

Organic material, such as food, CAN breakdown without oxygen, but this is not without its problems. This form of biodegradation without oxygen is known as anaerobic biodegradation. Biodegradation without introducing oxygen means the breakdown of the organic materials takes much longer. This process also causes a significant amount of methane to be released into the atmosphere. Methane has around 20 times the global warming potential as the same amount of carbon dioxide, so it’s a huge problem that is not in any way environmentally friendly.

In today’s tightly packed and sealed landfills, waste gets mummified, without oxygen. As a result, items may never fully break down, even biodegradable or compostable items that end up in landfill. This article about food waste being embalmed in landfill is equal parts fascinating and horrifying.

What this shows that biodegradation as a marketing term is meaningless, unless the retailer provides advice or solutions on how to dispose of the item correctly at the end of the item’s life. If that product ends up in landfill, then it’s no better than a product that was not marketed as biodegradable. I wrote more about this in my article on eco-friendly bin bags, should you wish to explore this in more detail.

What About Biodegradable Plastics?

Biodegradable plastics are not much better. I’ve written in detail about if biodegradable plastics are good for the environment. In short, most biodegradable plastics are classed as code 7. This places them in the ‘Other’ category of plastics.  Code 7 plastics are generally not accepted for recycling by local councils.  The reason being behind this is that biodegradable plastics are harder to recycle due to the addition of chemical additives in them.

Why Are Brands Able to Use The Term Biodegradable?

Brands are able to use broad-sweeping claims, such as ‘biodegradable’, and even ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ or because these words have no clearly defined or quantifiable meaning. These terms also don’t convey information about specific environmental benefits. This means they are not breaking any particular advertising rules. In fact, there are no specific anti-greenwashing legislation in the UK, despite this form of greenwashing being confusing to customers.

However, there is some hope. At the end of 2020, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) began an investigation into whether sustainability claims are being used to deceive consumers. In fact, just a few days ago, they published draft eco marketing guidance for businesses and they are now currently seeking views on this draft guidance. When published this may change things a little, however the ambiguity of the term biodegradable may remain.

What Does Compostable Mean?

biodegradable or compostable

Collins Dictionary defines compostable simply as “capable of being used as compost“.

When you look at the difference between biodegradable and compostable in these terms, it’s clear there is a big difference. A plastic bag could be described as biodegradable, but you wouldn’t dream of using it to make compost. Meanwhile, food waste can be describe as compostable because that breaks down quickly into organic matter that can make compost.

So surely, anything that is labelled as compostable is good for the environment? You would think so. However, the term compostable is not without its troubles. The term can be used to describe items that are both suitable for home compost setups only, and those are suitable for industrial composting setups.

What’s the Difference Between Home and Industrial Composting?

Composting at home is suitable for most food and garden waste, however home composting isn’t suitable for many types of compostable packaging, such as coffee cups and food packaging. This is because in most garden compost heaps, the temperature is much lower and much less constant than in an industrial composting facility, and it can’t break down the material.

Fine, the local council can deal with then, surely? Well, there’s a problem. If industrially compostable materials are placed in household garden waste bins, they are often fished out and sent to landfill. This makes these types of compostable packaging worse for the environment than recyclable plastic.

In my article on the problem with compostable coffee cups I explain more about the problems with industrial composting. To give a brief summary, industrial composting facilities are not widely available in the UK. There are only 50 facilities in the UK, and not all of these currently accept and deal with industrially compostable packaging products. Therefore, many local authorities don’t have access to this type of facility. This makes it almost impossible for many to correctly recycle industrially compostable packaging.

What To Look Out For

For items that you can compost at home, look for the TUV Austria logo, specifically the label with the word ‘home’ on it, like the one pictured here. The OK compost home certification guarantees that a product can be composted within home compost heaps. TUV Austria also certifies products suitable for industrial composting, however this has the words ‘industrial’ on it.

TL/DR?

Biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably to describe a product’s end of life. However, they actually mean very different things. Biodegradable is a meaningless term when it comes to making sustainable purchasing decisions, and is a form of greenwashing. Instead, look for products in home compostable packaging instead, that will break down to form compost. Until facilities in the UK catch up and are available to all, industrial composting is another type of greenwashing.

What Should I Do?

With most aspects of sustainability, the answer to the compostable vs biodegradable conundrum is to consume less stuff, and to lessen our dependence on disposable and single-use items.

However, sometimes we do actually need to buy things that we need. In this instance, question items labelled as biodegradable. Ask the brand what they actually mean by this, and if they have any independent certification to verify their claims. If you’re not satisfied with the answer, ask them where you should best dispose of the product at the end of its life. As the makers of a product, they are responsible for making products that can be responsibly disposed of or recycled at the end of their life.

For items that manufacturers claim to be compostable, check for labelling. If you can’t find a TUV home compostable label, then contact the retailer or manufacturer for clarification on whether these items are suitable for home or industrial composting. As waste and recycling facilities vary across the country, it’s also prudent to check whether your local council accepts industrially compostable packaging and products for composting. Don’t assume that yours does, as many councils don’t accept these kinds of materials. Including mine.

 

Resources

Best Ethical Banks, Current Accounts, Credit Cards & More For 2022

best ethical banks uk

Want to find out who the best ethical banks are in the UK in 2022, for current accounts, ISAs, mortgages, and credit cards?  Read on!

I hadn’t really thought about what banks invested in until a few years ago.  I just popped my money in the bank, took it out again, and so on. That was that.  No thoughts about it, or how ethical the banks might be. Then I found out that how we manage our money can be one of the most impactful environmental things we can do, particularly when it comes to climate change.  

Why Should We Switch to An Ethical Bank?

It’s really important to switch to an ethical bank because the money that we deposit into our bank account doesn’t just sit in a vault until we need to withdraw it.  Banks use the money we deposit in our current and savings accounts to fund their other profit-making banking activities –  from loans to investment. This means, depending on who you bank with, your money could be funding all sorts of projects that you don’t agree with and don’t necessarily know about.

I was pretty uncomfortable when I began to become aware of links with the high street banks to pretty unsavoury things. I learned that the High St banks are linked to the arms trade and bomb-making.  Other things I learned were that banks speculate on food prices (pushing prices up) and that they invest in environmentally damaging activities like oil and gas and tar sands mining.  And they aren’t just investing their money, they’re investing our money that we deposit in our accounts.

Fossil Fuel Financing

I looked into it more, and between 2015 and 2018 alone, the world’s biggest banks have invested $1.9 trillion into fossil fuel financing.  Edie reports one of the UK’s worst offenders is Barclays, who have provided £91 billion in funding to fossil fuel companies.  This includes companies involved in coal, tar sands, Arctic oil projects, and fracking, as well as the major players in the extraction and use of fossil fuels. 

The other is HSBC, which has contributed £67 billion over the same period. Greenpeace also reports that both companies own shares in fracking companies.

What’s more, according to a 2018 report from Ethical Consumer:

  • RBS has shareholdings in companies that are involved in deforestation due to palm oil. Within these companies are serious workers’ and human rights issues.
  • HSBC, Lloyds Bank, RBS, and Barclays all lend to companies selling arms to Israel. What’s more, Barclays and HSBC and Barclays both own shares in these companies.
  • Santander has over 21 subsidiaries in tax havens pointing to unethical tax avoidance strategies.
  • Between January 2014 and October 2017, Lloyds Bank made $2,986 million available to nuclear weapon producing companies

Best Ethical Banks for 2022

As banks depend on our money to fund these types of investments and to keep them afloat, one of the ways to change this is to switch to a more ethical bank.  Doing so helps to create a fair banking system that works in our interests.  Yet surprisingly, 75% of people have never switched current account bank account providers before.

With an increase in UK ethical banks, there’s never been a better time to switch.  Here’s my guide to the best UK ethical banks for 2022. From current accounts to savings accounts, and to credit cards and mortgages.  

Please note this post does not constitute financial advice and is provided for general information purposes only. I have no commercial relationship with any of the banks or financial products listed here.

Image of bank notes on a table with a blue text box that says guide to ethical banks - from current accounts to credit cards and more

Best Ethical Current Accounts

Triodos Bank

Triodos offers an ethical current account. What makes it ethical is that Triodos finances projects based on their social, environmental, or cultural impact.  What’s more, refreshingly, they only lend to businesses and organisations that promote or provide long-term positive change.  From wind farms to organic farms, to fair trade enterprises, social housing, or community projects, customers are able to see where money has gone and what it’s doing via their website.

Building Societies

Building societies are more ethical than high street banks because they face stringent regulations that limit the amount of money they can invest in certain industries.  Their profits are also invested back into the business for the benefit of borrowers and savers rather than shareholders, giving them that added edge.

Building societies that offer ethical current accounts include Cumberland Building Society and Nationwide. Both are ranked fairly high as ethical providers of current accounts by Ethical Consumer, and are great choices if you would prefer your money to be backed by a High St presence.

Challenger Banks

Monzo, one of the so-called app-based Challenger Banks, is currently a good ethical alternative. Monzo does not currently make large corporate loans or investments, and therefore does not directly fund industries like the fossil fuel industry. However, it is important to bear in mind that they may do so in the future. I have not been able to find any commitment that says that they will not.

I bank with Monzo and really rate it. Monzo in particular has changed my outlook on money. You can set up ring-fenced savings pots and savings goals within your current account, and their useful app interface gives you much greater control over your money. It’s not hyperbole when I say switching to Monzo has been life-changing.

With the Monzo Premium account, you can even ditch the plastic bank card, and switch to a sleek recyclable metal one instead.

I just wish Monzo could commit to only making ethical investments in the future.

I used to include Starling in this list. However, in March 2021 Starling took investment from the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). This authority was set up in 2005 to invest Qatar’s substantial oil and natural gas revenues around the world.

Starling bank says thatone of the key roles of QIA is to reduce Qatar’s dependence on revenues derived from oil and gas and to expand investment into non-hydrocarbon sectors. That’s one reason why it has been investing in a range of well-known British brands in addition to Starling.

This is a disappointing move from Starling, and as such, I don’t class Starling as an ethical bank.

Image of british money - pound notes and coins

Ethical Savings Accounts

The ethical savings account market is wider than the current account market.  What’s more, there are a lot of great innovative ways to ethically save your money.  

As well as the regular building societies, there are some other notable inclusions.  It’s important to bear in mind that with these options interest rates are not hugely competitive.  This is because they are unable to compete with the Big Five banks (Lloyds, RBS, HSBC, Barclays, and Standard Chartered.  These banks own 85% of the banking sector and exert a lot of control.  Not that interest rates are in great shape in 2022.

Building Societies 

Ecology Building Society saving accounts top the Ethical Consumer’s list of most ethical saving accounts.  Ecology provides mortgages for eco homes and similar sustainable developments that have traditionally been difficult to get a mortgage on.  This sustainable development is funded through their savings accounts.  These accounts are simple and transparent and can be accessed online or by post.

Alternative Banks

If you are looking for an ethical savings account, then Charity Bank is banking with a difference.  Not only does the bank lend to charities, but is a charity itself.  Don’t worry, it is fully regulated by the FSA meaning your savings are guaranteed.  The bank supports 1,000 charities and community organisations, and says it has “improved the lives of 3.5m people”.  Transparency is key to the bank. Customers can track where money has gone by following projects it has invested in on the website.  They offer various ethical savings accounts for adults.

Meanwhile, Triodos Bank offers a wide range of ethical savings accounts, including an ethical savings account for children.

Ethical Cash ISAs

Ecology, Charity Bank, and Triodos top the ethical league table for Cash ISAs.  The building societies are not too far behind on ethics, so don’t be afraid to check out building society offerings.

Ethical Mortgages

If you’re looking for an ethical mortgage to fund an eco build then a mortgage from Ecology is the most ethical on the market according to Ethical Consumer’s list of ethical mortgages.  If you’re looking for an ethical mortgage on a standard house then the most ethical option is to use a building society.  Ones to try include Skipton, Coventry, Cumberland, or Kent Reliance Building Societies. 

Ethical Credit Cards

Until recently I didn’t think you could get an ethical credit card. Then I discovered a wave of mobile-only app-based challenger banks that are beginning to roll out credit cards. This means you are no longer tied to the big banks for your credit needs.

Again, like the challenger banks, these app-based credit card companies do not currently make large corporate loans or investments. They, therefore, do not directly fund industries like the fossil fuel industry. However, it is important to bear in mind that they may do so in the future.

Jaja

Jaja credit cards make credit simple. Their app and online-only banking system is designed to give credit card customers easier access, more control, and greater flexibility.

In order to treat customers fairly and to be a responsible lender, instead of focusing on 0% balance transfer offers, they’ve invested more in their customer experience, product and services. They’ve also focused on the ability to help people better manage their payments and spending.

Tymit

Tymit is a new concept in credit cards. When you purchase something on your Tymit card, you pay back the balance in fixed installments meaning you don’t get stuck in a minimum payment rut that takes years to clear.

At the point of purchase of an item, you select a repayment plan that is affordable to you. You can repay over 3 months, in three fixed monthly installments at 0% APR. Alternatively, if you need longer to pay, you can spread the cost with fixed installments over 6, 12, or 24 months. A transparent cost for each option is shown upfront. And by paying a fixed fee to borrow money, you don’t pay interest on your interest.

Ethical Pensions

As your pension will most likely be in the hands of your workplace, you may have little control over who your pension is invested with, and what it is invested in. If this is the case, then encouraging your workplace to divest to a more ethical pension scheme is your best way forward. The Make My Money Matter is a good starting point to find out more.

If you are self-employed and/or have a personal pension then the good news is you have more autonomy over what you do with your pension. The bad news is that choosing the right ethical pension can be incredibly complicated. Not only do you need to find a more ethical pension company, you then need to find an ethical fund to put your money in. 

I would really recommend seeking independent financial advice on this one. This is because as with all investments, your capital is at risk. The value of your investment can go down as well as up, and you may get back less than you invest.

How Easy Is It To Switch To An Ethical Bank?

If this has inspired you to switch to a more ethical bank then you’ll be pleased to hear that now is a good time to move your money. This is because you can now reliably switch accounts in just seven days.  This is definitely a lot less hassle than it used to be.

What do you think?  Do you bank with an ethical provider, or would you consider switching banks to a more ethical one?

Do also check out my guide on how to make ethical investments.