Shole's Guide to Sustainable Terminology

Are you confused about some of the terms used to describe sustainability? We don’t blame you! To try bring some clarity, we’ve put together a list of some of the common phrases you may see:


The EU states “'Biodegradation' is a process by which material disintegrates and is decomposed by microorganisms into elements that are found in nature, such as CO2, water and biomass.”

As this is quite a complex subject, we’ve taken a deeper dive into the world of biodegradability here.


Bisphenol-A: An important material in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. A known estrogenically-active and endocrine-disrupting chemical, it can affect growth, reproduction and development of humans and aquatic organisms alike, especially fish.

Carbon Neutral

This means achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions for a given activity, by removing as much carbon as is produced, or by eliminating carbon emissions totally. In practice, this is usually achieved by ‘carbon offsetting’, which involves supporting a carbon project such as reforestation or renewable energy project. It’s important to understand that it is not an environmentally-sound strategy to ignore the emissions side of the equation, and simply agree to offset whatever you do produce. The aim should be to reduce what you can, then offset the rest.

Circular Economy

A Circular Economy is an alternative economic system designed to reduce waste and consumption of resources. It relies on reuse, repair, recycling, and sharing to create a ‘closed loop’, as opposed to the linear model of ‘take, make, dispose.’ The aim is to extend the usable life of all things within the system (from simple products to infrastructure and industrial equipment). Waste should be recoverable or easy to repurpose. In order to work effectively, the circular economy requires its ethos to penetrate all stages of a product lifecycle, as much of it, including end-of-life, needs to be ‘designed-in’ at the concept/design stage.


In general terms, compostability simply means “a material that can be made into compost.” The EU has a more in depth definition for compostable packaging materials (EN13432). This includes provision for materials that are compostable in commercial facilities only. There are further optional accreditations (Vincotte OK Compost among others) which means the product is suitable for home composting, meaning it’s not as clear cut as it should be for consumers. We're going to look at this in more depth separately!

Made in…

In order to legally promote a product as ‘Made in UK’ (or anywhere else), the product in question must have undergone a ‘substantial change’ here. This could simply be assembly, cutting, or finishing of entirely foreign components (but obviously would include end-to-end domestic manufacture as well, and it’s these companies who are put at a disadvantage by those using the law as it stands to partially, or even mostly, produce offshore while still legally claiming Made in Britain status).

Made from…

This is like an ingredients list. It doesn’t mean that the material mentioned is the only material in the product. We must also be careful with word order. “Made from 100% organic bamboo” doesn’t mean that 100% of the product is bamboo. It means that 100% of the bamboo used in the product, whatever % by weight that may be, is organic.


In scientific terms, microplastics are split into two types: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are fragments of plastic that are already smaller than 5mm in size when the enter the environment. They include microfibres washed out of clothing, microbeads from cosmetics, and plastic nurdles.

Secondary microplastics are created from larger fragments of plastics, usually becoming smaller than 5mm through weathering or degradation.

Both types cause immense damage to the marine environment, entering the food chain and accumulating in the tissue of a wide variety of lifeforms.

Organic compounds

At a very general level, an organic compound is one that contains carbon. Most synthetically produced organic compounds are ultimately derived from petrochemicals consisting mainly of hydrocarbons, Organic compounds are no longer defined as compounds originating in living things, as they were historically.


In simple terms, they are traditional plastics with an additive which accelerates the break down of the plastic. In practise, this means more microplastics, quicker. Thankfully, the EU has already moved to restrict the use of oxo-degradable plastics, and we look forward to this being rolled out.


Polyethylene terephthalate: A type of polyester (and usually referred to as Polyester when in fibre or fabric form), most commonly used for plastic water/soda bottles. Can be recycled into post-consumer PET or rPET, which is often used for fibres, or mixed with virgin PET to create new containers. While it is not infinitely recyclable, rPET has been shown to have a 79% lower carbon footprint per kg when compared to virgin PET (0.45kg C02/kg of plastic compared to 2.15kg CO2/kg of plastic). Resin identification code 01.


A synthetic or semi-synthetic organic polymer, usually derived from oil, that is generally a thermoplastic or thermosetting polymer of high molecular weight, and that can be made into objects, films or filaments.


A common plastic, used for its low-cost, fatigue resistance (good for hinges) and resistance to heat. Common in food containers, injection molded products, medical equipment and non-woven applications, such as wet wipes and nappies. Resin identification code 5.


Able to be recycled. The usefulness of the end product varies by material, as does the cost of recycling (both monetary and in terms of energy). There are other benefits as well, such as raw material savings and the ecological benefits of less deforestation or bauxite mining, for example.


Able to be used over and over again with no industrial process required. This is a step further than recycling, where an individual user can simply clean, and reuse a product. This is by far the best way of saving energy and raw materials, as each reuse saves 100% of that used in the production of the item! Items made from glass and metals lend themselves best to reuse as they are easy to wash, and do not leach chemicals.


An item designed to be used once, then thrown away. The very definition of the ‘take, make, dispose’ model.

Sustainable and Eco-Friendly

We’ve put these two together as the explanation is pretty much the same.

Sustainability can be defined as “the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” Obviously as a species, we’ve already failed at this. The phrase is used so much that it has lost much of its meaning. The same is true of ‘eco-friendly.’ It’s such a subjective phrase. By what measure is this product ‘eco-friendly?’ Without proper research or data, it’s often confusing. For example, The Environment Agency estimates that you’d need to reuse a cotton bag 131 times in order to derive an environmental benefit compared to a plastic bag. This is because of the high energy required in the production of cotton thread, not to mention the pesticides, chemical fertilisers and simple water consumption.

Hopefully this has shed some light on a few of the common phrases you may have come across. If there is anything missing you'd like to know about, or if you have any thoughts on any of the definitions we've given, leave us a comment below!

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