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Compostable Packaging vs. Biodegradable: Which Is More Eco-Friendly?

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In today's steadily expanding 'green' market, there is a lot of confusion among ethical consumers about what exactly some of the labeling means - and with good reason. There is an incredible amount of new terminology coming to the marketplace. A good portion of the terminology has to do with the packaging materials, which are a major concern now that the amount of waste being dumped in the oceans and third world countries has become public knowledge. To help clarify things, we'd like to explain the difference between 'compostable,' 'biodegradable,' 'degradable,' and the standard of our own packaging material, 'backyard compostable.'

According to the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM), compostable plastic has to be 'capable of undergoing biological decomposition (..) such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, (...) and leaves no toxic residue.' Additionally, it needs to break down at about the same rate as paper.How is this different from biodegradability? For a plastic to be biodegradable, it merely needs to degrade due to the functioning of some living microorganism. But biodegradability standards do not address the amount of time the material takes to degrade, nor if it leaves a toxic residue. Unfortunately, most biodegradable waste (such as plastic cups made from corn starch), are buried in landfills too deep for the bacteria responsible for biodegrading to survive - there's just not enough oxygen. And when there isn't enough oxygen present, many of these biodegradable plastic release methane (a potent greenhouse gas) while degrading. Even worse, many of them can leave behind toxic residues such as heavy metals - which are harmful to plants, animals, and humans (Source: GreenLivingTips).

An even weaker environmental standard would be degradable plastics. For a plastic to be 'degradable', it simply needs to be able to be broken down through chemical reactions in a man-made environment. Usually these plastics are oil-based; a byproduct of gasoline production.

Arbor Teas' new packaging rises above all three of these standards - the next-generation material we use is backyard compostable. In addition to all of the requirements for compostability set forth by the ASTM (as described above), backyard compostable materials need to degrade relatively quickly in a natural environment. Many products labeled as 'compostable' only break down under industrial conditions - usually large metal containers with computer-controlled aeration, humidity, and oxygen levels that provide optimal conditions for microorganisms to break down the material (Spellman 79). But backyard compostable materials, like those implemented by Arbor Teas, can break down in a natural environment - like a compost pile behind your house - turning into viable, usable soil that is free of any toxic residues.

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