What is the Difference Between Recyclable, Compostable, and Biodegradable? 

Author: Southern Champion Tray

Learn the distinction between sustainable-based products.

Have you ever wondered what it means when a product says it is recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable? You see it everywhere, right? But what makes each of those things different?  

A quick breakdown can be found right here! 

Recyclable – refers to the ability of a material to be collected, sorted, processed, and transformed into new products or materials at a recycling facility. Certain materials can be recycled a set number of times. For plastics, it is typically 2-3 times before the quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be used. For paper, it is 5-7 times, but both glass and metals can be recycled infinitely! 

Compostable – is when an organic matter can be broken down into nutrient dense material and used as plant fertilizer, known as compost. To be certified as compostable, a product goes through a rigorous testing cycle (including breaking down within a certain time frame) at an approved lab. Only after this process has completed and a product has successfully fulfilled all requirements can it be certified compostable. Though home composting is a great way to join the movement, a composting facility is best for composting certain items. It is a controlled environment that provides the optimal temperature and environment for breaking down the material into nutrient-rich compost. Common compostable items include, food waste (no dairy), grass and yard trimmings, and paper.  

Biodegradable – refers to a material being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. Two significant differences from compostable are that the original material does not have to be considered “organic matter” and there is no timeframe for how long something takes to biodegrade to be considered biodegradable (it could take years). However, some materials can biodegrade quickly, like, boxes, paper, and paper bags.  

Understanding the difference in recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable is important to creating a more sustainable environment. When you see bins labeled for different items you want to be sure that you are placing the right items in the right bins. This helps the entire process go smoothly for the hard-working individuals receiving the items and ensures that the items are recycled or composted. 

Recycling Resource: 

Many homes in North America have curbside recycling; however, there are still recyclable items that cannot be left at the curb. A great resource for finding out where the nearest recycling center is to you, or even finding where you can recycle a particular item such as an old television, can be found here, https://earth911.com. Just put in your zip code!  

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