Since I started my sustainable journey, I have been struggling with all these words… so if you are also trying to live environmentally friendlier and greener, you have probably been confronted with some of these words: compostable, biodegradable, recyclable, degradable. They are quite common terms, but they can definitely generate some confusion. I think it’s important to understand the meaning behind these terms, to help us make informed choices about the products we are buying and/or throwing.
And so, the evolution of this article will be based and centred around the question: What is the difference between these buzzwords? Here’s your Guide:
This is probably the most familiar method of keeping valuable materials out of landfills.
A recyclable product is an item that can be collected, separated or recovered to manufacture another product or for reuse.
Basically, recyclable products can be turned into something “new”.
Recycled products are products that were recyclable originally, but they are not necessarily recyclable again.
For example, paper can only be recycled four to six times and durable plastic can be recycled seven to nine times before it is no longer recyclable, while some plastics can only be recycled once.
The fact is that only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled. That is because recycling is all in all not as easy as it might look.
Glass, steel and aluminium, on the other hand, can be recycled endlessly, and this is why zero wasters recommend buying in glass and metal over buying anything in paper or plastic.
A product is biodegradable as long as it will completely break down and return to nature. It needs to decompose into items found in nature and the process has to happen within a reasonably short amount of time. The item will continue to disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces until micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and algae) are able to eat them.
Some points about Biodegradable products:
- They are made of plant-based materials instead of petroleum.
- They are not certified and don’t have to be until now.
- They break down into smaller sized pieces.
- Is a natural chemical resp. biological process.
- Unspecified time to breakdown, sometimes takes decades to fully degrade. It could take from 6 months to 1000 years to break down depending on what the item is.
- It breaks down and disintegrates into CO2, biomass, water vapour…(through the action of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria or some other biological process as mentioned before).
- Leave toxins or residue (like microplastics).
- Does not provide nutrients to the soil. Biodegradable products just return to nature, disintegrating completely, but not adding any nutrients.
- They are NOT compostable and cannot be added to the compost bin.
- Likely recyclable, however not all biodegradable plastics can be “made” recyclable.
Biodegradability depends on very specific environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, microorganisms present, and oxygen. Biodegradable products require 50 degree+ temperatures and exposure to UV rays in order to break down properly. However, most climates do not provide these conditions, so often the biodegradable products need to go to an official facility that is able to properly recycle the products.
Biodegradable products are an eco-friendly option for people running food and drink businesses, but there’s a negative side as well. If biodegradable products are dumped into landfills, they become buried. The bacteria which breaks down these products cannot survive being under all the rubbish because of the lack of oxygen. This means that biodegradable products break down without oxygen, anaerobically, which releases methane gas, which is NOT environmentally friendly.
And so, the best way to dispose of biodegradable products is to dispose of them in a commercial compost heap or send them to a recycling plant.
The official definition of compostable is: organic material that can, through the process of decomposition, be turned into nutrient-rich soil or fertilizer.
When something is labelled as compostable, it means that the product “can” be turned into compost as long as it’s under the correct conditions. And if the item is food, paper-based, or wood-based, it’s likely compostable under the most basic composting conditions, including a backyard compost bin.
Some points about Compostable products:
- Must be certified.
- Break down into non-toxic components and into natural elements. Composting will not harm the environment in the correct conditions.
- Compostable materials like organic waste, break down completely and create what is called “humus,” which provides valuable nutrients to the soil.
- Can be added to a compost bin (if specified).
- Leaves NO toxic residue and NO microplastics.
- Typically takes between 90 to 180 days (but it can take longer).
- Can’t be recycled (It’s important to get informed about how to dispose of the product properly).
- Compostable products (non-organic) do not break down easily in a standard landfill so these products should not be thrown in the trash.
- It requires the right levels of oxygen, water and heat in order to be broken down by microbial digestion.
Compostable products do not biodegrade naturally in a landfill, in fact, the process of composting food will not be the same for a compostable cup, for example.
Organic waste can be composted even at home and can be used as extra rich soil for planters and as fertilizer, instead of some products like compostable packaging, usually can be turned into compost only if entered into an industrial composting facility. Those are rich in microorganisms and reach high temperatures, which allow products to break down quickly.
One research found that biodegradable products were discovered to persist in the environment with minimal degradation of quality after 3 years, while compostable products broke down (or completely disappeared) much quicker even when not placed in the ideal composting conditions. So we can conclude that Composting is a faster process than Biodegrading, as long as the item breaking down is situated in the right conditions.
All compostable material is biodegradable but not all biodegradable material is compostable.
Other Interesting Terms:
A degradable product cannot completely dissolve in nature. It may take a very long time to break down and may never completely biodegrade. They also leave heavy metals or other toxins in the soil and environment. Those are mainly plastics, which become smaller and smaller and turn into microplastics.
6. Oxo-degradable plastics
A similar concept is the so-called Oxo-degradable plastics. Those are plastics made from traditional fossil feedstock and are treated with additives that cause degradation of the polymer through both oxidative and cell-mediated phenomena, either simultaneously or successively.
Oxo-degradable plastics are also not a solution to littering as they also break down into microplastics.
Microplastics are incredibly harmful to the environment. They are a threat to marine life (and also us), as they’re ingested by smaller organisms and marine animals within the food chain and they slowly work their way up through the food chain until they arrive at us.
The conclusion reached by a team of UK-based researchers in a new report published in Environmental Pollution was that: The Average Person Eats 70,000 Microplastics Each Year.
7. Bio / Plant-based / Bioplastics
Products labelled as bio- or plant-based and bioplastic are not necessarily biodegradable or compostable. This can simply mean that they are made from plant materials.
For example, Bio-based plastics are made using polymers derived from biomass such as starch, cellulose, or lignin. These plastics can be engineered to be biodegradable or they can be made to function exactly like conventional fossil-based plastic. However, not all bioplastics can be made biodegradable.
Always buy recycled products over new products to support the system of recycling and always buy recyclable products over non-recyclable products.
Make sure that there is a bio before the degradable: these are still not the best option as these products can’t be composted in a home compost bin or in a composting facility, but maybe they have better chances. You will just need to follow the instructions on the product that explain how to dispose of it so it will actually biodegrade. (for example landfill biodegradable products need to be placed in your general waste bin).
With all this information, the common goal should be to be able to manage waste efficiently and move towards a more sustainable and green society. We have to do everything that is in our hands – compost, biodegrade, recycle – to eliminate the entry of waste into landfills and oceans. So the next time that you buy a product makes it your responsibility to check the packaging details to see the impact your purchase has on the environment.
Fortunately, many sustainable practices have become more common among people. Composting is a great method to reduce your food waste. It can seem like a challenging task but it is easier than you think. Spoiler alert: you don’t need an enormous yard to do it right: “Composting 101 – A simple guide” article by Laura Malomo Menelle.