There's a lot of confusion over the terms biodegradable, compostable and recyclable. We've all been there--passing a green product that proclaims "compostable" and wondering if we should throw it in the compost bin or just throw it away. While it may be tempting to read all three of those labels and choose the one you think means "best for the planet" -- there's actually a really big difference between what each of those labels mean.
It’s time to get to know the three terms you see on packaging so that you can make sure you’re making the right choice when shopping.
Disclaimer: something which is biodegradable will not necessarily be compostable or recyclable!
So...what does biodegradable mean?
If the word biodegradable sounds familiar, you're right. Its everywhere—on trash cans, potato chip packages, and diaper boxes. It's so common that you probably don't even notice it anymore. A massive misconception is that just because something is biodegradable it will break down in less time than normal plastics, which can take thousands of years.
The simple definition of biodegradable is ‘a material or object that when exposed to microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi,’ will eventually break down into natural elements such as water or carbon dioxide. ‘Eventually’ however, could mean hundreds of years.
What should I do with biodegradable packaging?
Do not put biodegradable plastics in your kerbside recycling bin; they need to be sent to an industrial compost Biodegradable materials should be processed separately or they will end up in a landfill. Landfill environments have low levels of oxygen and cannot break down biodegradable packaging materials naturally, so they release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
What does compostable mean?
The important thing to remember is that compostable products are made from organic or plant-based materials. Compostable products return to the ground as humus, which contains the nutrients that plants need.
What should I do with compostable packaging?
Compostable products do not belong in your recycling. You also need to be careful about putting things that are marked as compostable into your home compost as they will only break down in industrial composts.
What does recyclable mean?
While any material can technically be recycled, its definition of what counts as "recycled" may vary by local council. Ask your local council about what is accepted in their recycling facility.
If you’re looking for a free recycling solution for a hard-to-recycle item, checkout TerraCycle, specialists in recycling things that are deemed un-recyclable or things that are frequently rejected by council recycling.
Breaking Down Summary Definitions:
- Biodegradable can break down by natural processes in anywhere from 6 months to 1000 years.
- Compostable packaging can create nutrient-rich soil within 90-180 days only in a controlled environment like a commercial composting facility. Check the labels for specification such as PLA. (Polylactic acid)
- Home compostable packaging is the best option if you have a home compost bin. Check the labels for specification or ask for certifications. You can also find our range of home compostable products here.
- Recyclable can be converted into new materials suitable for reuse.