Below are a list of common doubts that people have when purchasing environment friendly products. We have tried to simplify the process for you and also provide ready to refer tables for you to verify your purchase against. The information below is based on our research and is not affiliated to any research institute or any organisation. We have also tried to include reference links which are not related to any companies as much as possible.
If you require further information on any of the below answers, please feel free to contact us and we will be happy to help you.
A: Biodegradable simply means that a product can break down into natural materials (such as Carbon-di-oxide, water and other organic compounds and minerals) in the environment without causing harm or leaving any toxins behind.
Of course products such as kitchen waste are naturally biodegradable, while there are some products made out of natural ingredients without chemical treatments that are biodegradable. Some products like paper biodegrade relatively easily, while others such as metal take much longer. The common factor between all biodegradable products is that they do not break down into any inorganic compounds or harmful products and can be completely absorbed in the soil / earth without causing any harm to the environment.
If any product, states it is partially Biodegradable (such as 60%-70%-80% Biodegradable) then it has ingredients, a percentage of which by weight will biodegrade without leaving behind any toxins. However, the logical flow then leads to the remaining ingredients which either break down into inorganic compounds or into tiny bits of the same product (in most cases plastic) which may not be visible. The inorganic compounds do not merge with the soil or natural environment and thus lead to a negative impact on the environment. The tiny bits of plastic, or microplastics, however, are worse as they leech into water sources as well and in fact, a recent study showed that 84% of tap water in India has microplastics.
Today, there are a lot of products available that are classified as or have the tag of Biodegradable (and a lot of other green tags such as compostable, environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, Green products etc.). However, as a consumer wishing to buy a truly green alternative that does not harm nature or will not remain in our environment long after we are gone, we need to make sure that the products truly are what they are and that they do not contain any harmful ingredients.
Below is a simple checklist that can come in handy for you to ensure your product is truly green:
- Made of Natural Ingredients: Check if the product is made from natural ingredients (and natural ingredients only with zero or minimal chemical inputs)
- Looks May not be deceptive: If it looks like plastic, chances are it probably has some plastic in it! Check if the product resembles natural ingredients - like wooden cutlery, bamboo straw etc - the lesser the processing, the closer to nature the product is likely to be
- Biodegradable Rating/ Standards: Check the Biodegradable Rating on the product: Does the product say 100% Biodegradable or lesser? There are currently standards in place, however, the standards adopted in India only look for visible residue after decomposition (ISO 17088:2008) and accept up to 5% inorganic compounds by weight for a product.
- Compostable Products: These products break down only in Industrial Composts (not even home composts for those who do composting at home). Think about a realistic way of getting this product to an industrial compost post usage in India - the chances of it reaching one are very very low. You’re better off continuing your search for the right product or simply using plastic and reusing or recycling that plastic.
- Beware of Marketing Gimmicks: If it uses terms like Biodegradable AND Compostable - steer clear as the two terms are definitely not interchangeable and neither do they go hand-in-hand. We will cover Compostable Products in the next question in detail.
- Shiny Little Beads are not Good For the Environment: The list mentioned here has products which contain microbeads which eventually become microplastics. While the list for India is not yet available, the composition of the products is more or less similar. An easy way to identify and avoid any products with microbeads is to avoid scrubs, toothpastes, face and body cleansers with exfoliants, little beads, whitening beads etc. Go for the simpler products without the shiny beads! Check the list of products here.
- Plastic Packaging for Eco-friendly products is not Eco-friendly: Is the Packaging Plastic? Of course if the product is packed in plastic, eventually the packaging will go somewhere in the environment unless recycled or reused. Try to find a product with minimal or no plastic packaging. This can be hard but the options do exist.
- Quality Standards mentioned on the Pack: Is there a Standard mentioned on the pack? Usually a compostable product will mention standards such as ISO 17088, ASTM D 6400, ASTM D 6868, ASTM 6954-04, EN 13432, AS 4736-2006 or other such standards. These are easy for you to google while in a store. However, if a product claims to be biodegradable or compostable but has no standard mentioned on the pack and does not even look like a natural product, the chances of it being actually environment friendly are much lower than it simply being sold under the garb of eco-friendly. Beware of such wolves in sheep skins.
A Compostable Product requires particular conditions such as pressure, temperature, microbial agents (aerobic or anaerobic) and needs to be placed in a composition of biodegradable materials in order for it to turn into a nutrient-rich material.
However, there are international standards defining the criteria to be met by products in order to be called “Compostable”. Most of the standards require the below two criteria to be met by products.
The product must:
- break down into carbon-di-oxide, water and INORGANIC compounds and biomass at a rate similar to paper/ 90 days/ 6 months (timelines vary depending on standards)
- must disintegrate into small pieces within 90 days, so that the original product is not visually distinguishable in the compost
Both of the above criteria ignore important considerations such as the impact of the inorganic compounds or the “invisible” pieces on our environment. Moreover, if a Compostable Product does not reach an industrial compost, and instead reaches a landfill, it will stay there as long as plastic and does not break down. And it gets worse - Compostable products release Methane in Landfills - a gas which is roughly 30 times more heat-trapping than Carbon-di-oxide and causes a higher greenhouse effect than the latter. Also, if a Compostable Product, reaches a plastic recycling facility instead (since the products look very similar to plastic products and can be easily confused), it can interfere with the Plastic Recycling Process or even damage the plant if present over multiple cycles.
In our opinion, the Compostable Products in India, have a very low probability of reaching industrial composts. While the government is working towards wet and dry waste segregation in India, there are no steps currently prescribed towards putting the Compostable Products along with the wet waste or to send them to industrial composts (there is a government approved list of 95 Composting Machine Sellers in India - location of installed Industrial composts is not easily available as of today) and this habit change can take years to come. In the absence of this process, the compostable products are either going to land up in Plastic Recycling (and cause trouble there) or just sit in the landfill like the rest of non-recycled plastic thereby leading to a whole new problem.
As a result, we feel, compostable products are neither here nor there and instead of providing a solution to plastic, they are creating a whole new problem in themselves as their end-of-life scenario is not handled in India. So, we would recommend our readers to avoid these products to help avoid creation of a whole new problem that will have to be cleaned up later.
The key difference between a Biodegradable and a Compostable product is the residue left behind at the end of the process of breaking down. While a naturally biodegradable product will not leave behind any inorganic residue that cannot be absorbed by nature, a compostable product may (and in case of cutlery and bags, most likely will) do that. Currently, none of the global standards state that the compostable products should break down only into natural compounds only. Inorganic compounds are acceptable as long as it can be proved that they are not toxic. What’s worse is, the invisible little pieces that these products may break down into are not even considered. None of the standards include a study on or acceptable residual levels of Microplastics (or the permissible tiny pieces that these products may break down into). Out of Sight is currently being treated as out of mind and not harmful to nature – this ignorance could prove to be a bigger environmental problem in the time to come.
While in some countries, standards require Compostable to be clearly called out on products and the warning also includes mentioning whether the products are “Industrial Compostable Only” or “Home Compostable”, there are no such standards in India yet and products are currently available on shelves which claim to be “Biodegradable” or “Compostable” or “Eco-friendly” but do not mention which Indian or International Quality Standard they adhere to. Moreover, these products more often than not are simply Bio-based plastics or Oxo-biodegradable products neither of which are friends of the environment.
Below is a summary of the different kinds of Green and Environment-friendly Alternatives in the market currently. Before you purchase an environment-friendly product, make sure you read its raw material on the bag or the type of plastic (in the next question) to know if you are making the right choice:
Did you know that every plastic product available for sale today has a small number in an arrow triangle indicating the type of plastic it is and based on that it is recycled.
So when you are buying any plastic product, you can know at the time of purchase itself if you will later be able to recycle that plastic or not. Below is a quick summary of the numbers (ranging 1 to 7) that you will find:
A list of recyclers is provided in the Resource Centre (Link to resource center section 1). However, if they do not provide service in your area, rely on your trusted Kabadiwala as the unorganised sector in India contribute significantly for plastic recycling.
More About Biodegradable Plastics, Bio-plastics, Oxo-degradable Plastics and other such confusing plastic types:
Products to avoid:
Take a look at the global brands and products that contain microbeads. Some of these products may/may not be available in India, however, take a look to understand what products with microbeads look like.
The best option is to not have a liner especially for wet waste and send it straight for composting. However, if you must use bags, use newspaper liners for wet waste and the below suggestions for dry waste:
Our suggestions on soaps made of natural ingredients with zero to minimal plastic packaging
Personal & Home Care:
Shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, detergents and other such products made of earth-friendly ingredients available in zero to minimal plastic packaging
Stationery (Pens, Pencils) from Recycled Paper:
Reusable Silicone Wrap instead of Cling Film:
Reusable Cloth Sanitary Napkins; Reusable Menstrual Cups:
Also available on Big Basket, Amazon and Flipkart.
Don’t see an earth-friendly product/brand that you would like us to add to the list? Let us know and we will be sure to update the same
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