Speak My Language

Speak My Language Plastic Free Article

Language is “a system of communication used by a particular country or community”. In the eco community a lot of terms used are colloquial or informal where they are used to communicate a concept rather than stick rigidly to the detail. This is especially true with the use of social media where there is a need for brevity and there is use of #hashtags to group collective thinking. As the issues are so complex there is need for us to use more formal language which defines more closely the detail involved. This should not be jargon which can be negative when it is used to separate others from a conversation or to create a superior appearance. Instead, words specific to this community are used to bring clarity and enable concise communication. This is not binary or exclusive, sometimes a mix of informal and formal language can be best to communicate. But we must take care that terms are not used incorrectly and that in turn cause confusion and misunderstanding. For example, “biodegradable”.


Those of us who are seeking to reduce the impact we are having on the environment might see biodegradable as a key attribute in our battle against the legacy of plastic waste. This term is unfortunately vague and colloquial because it does not define the conditions under which an item will biodegrade. These conditions include, the temperature, the moisture, the oxygen, the bacteria and of course the time.

At Westaways we bought some plastic carrier bags for use at shows. The bags were printed “This carrier bag will totally degrade with no harmful residues” with a logo saying degradable plastics. I can report these bags are to my mind virtually indestructible. We have returning customers who have used the bags for years.

Since then, our focus has been to look for materials that are compostable. I am looking for products that disappear in my garden compost heap. To turn the word compostable from colloquial to formal we need to add the word certified and add the standard to which it is accredited. This defines the conditions in which this material will compost.

In short you might say that all certified compostable items are biodegradable, but something that is termed biodegradable is not always certified as compostable, and this is the problem.


This issue was comprehensively addressed by the EU by introducing a standard EN 13432. This was enshrined in UK law in 2000 as BS (British Standard) EN 13432. It defined “Packaging: requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation”.

Key tests and Pass / Fail criteria are:

  • Disintegration – the packaging sample is mixed with organic waste and maintained under test scale composting conditions for 12 weeks after which time no more than 10 % of material fragments are allowed be larger than 2 mm.
  • Biodegradability – a measure of the actual metabolic, microbial conversion, under composting conditions, of the packaging sample into water, carbon dioxide and new cell biomass.  Within a maximum of 6 months, biodegradation of the test sample must generate an amount of carbon dioxide that is at least 90 % as much as the carbon dioxide given off from the control / reference material.
  • Absence of any negative effect on the composting process.
  • Low levels of heavy metals (Potentially Toxic Elements) and no adverse effect of the quality of compost produced. Upper limits, in mg/kg of dry sample, are zinc 150, copper 50, nickel 25, cadmium 0.5, lead 50, mercury 0.5, chromium 50, molybdenum 1, selenium 0.75, arsenic 5 and fluoride 100.
  • The composted packaging material must not have adverse effect on the bulk density, pH, salinity (electrical conductivity), volatile solids, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, total magnesium, total potassium, and ammonium nitrogen characteristics of the compost.

Each of these tests is undertaken according to internationally agreed methods of test, as specified in BS EN 13432.  Independent laboratory test results are then compared with the strict pass / fail limits set in the standard.  Only if a material passes every ‘compostable’ test requirement is it proven to be ‘compostable’.

Green washing – an example

Back to the indestructible Westaway Sausages carrier bags, these are still advertised by the supplier to this day as degradable and that they meet the eco-toxicity requirements for EN 13432. This is grossly misleading. Indeed, we bought these bags thinking there was a clear value in that they degraded. It is a classic example of “Green washing”. Manufacturers cannot piggy-back on the good reputation of EN 13432 by referring to only parts of the standard. But it gets worse. The environmentalist Chris Packham endorsed the material as one that broke down very rapidly as a guest on the BBC One Show’s special programme on plastics, but the BBC reported that after the interview it had emerged that Mr Packham was a paid advisor to the manufacturer. This shows how easily the credentials of packaging can be misunderstood, it would certainly be wonderful if marketing were always accurate.

Clear and concise

We at Westaways are lobbying the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to legislate that the use of the term “biodegradable” cannot be assigned to packaging unless it meets the UK standard BS EN 13432:2000.

We are constantly reviewing what we can do to make it easier for the consumer to know what to do with our packaging at end of life. We are seeking to get our certified compostable stretch wrap branded as such, as now it is indistinguishable from other films.

There is always more we can all do; it is important that we all continue to work to reduce our impact on the environment. Maybe the language we use needs review to ensure as well as clear and concise, it is accurate and technically correct.