Biodegradable, Compostable, Degradable and Recyclable… no doubt you’ve heard of these different labels. But what do they actually mean? And what’s the difference between them?
There are a lot of ‘buzzwords’ getting thrown around when it comes to eco and environmentally friendly products and packaging. However they are often used interchangeably, and with unclear definitions. Even for the savviest consumer, it’s not always 100% clear what these terms actually mean, their impact on the environment, and what you should do with them.
The problems with the lack of guidance and clarity around these terms is that packaging is not being disposed of in the correct way. This is why knowing the difference between recyclable, degradable, compostable and biodegradable is so important.
To make matters even less straightforward you may also need to separate parts of a product or it's packaging as the different elements may need to be disposed of in different ways.
Confused? Don't worry. To help make things a little clearer, we’ve created a brief guide to these 4 eco 'buzzwords.'
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. Although energy is used to recycle, it has less of an environmental impact than creating new and reduces waste, keeping materials in circulation for longer.
However, even if a product says that it is recyclable, never chuck it straight into your recycling bin without checking that your local council will actually accept it. You still need to make sure you know exactly where you need to take it to be recycled. Some materials can be widely recycled in black boxes outside your home, some in communal recycling bins, or some need to be taken to special recycling points. Make sure you find out from your local council what can and can’t be recycled in your black boxes.
For example packaging like our glass jars and bottles can be widely recycled with your other glass recycling, whereas materials like tetra pack may be recyclable but will not always be collected by your local council.
Another thing to look out for is that just because a material is recyclable doesn’t mean that it is a totally green alternative. Certain materials can only be recycled a certain amount of times i.e. plastic bottles can only be recycled 7-9 times before going to landfill, whereas glass and metals like aluminium can be recycled indefinitely, which is why we choose them to package our oral care products.
Remember: Biodegradable and compostable products cannot be recycled. This includes veg based ‘plastic’ wraps and cups etc.
Degradable items don't have living organisms as a crucial part of the breakdown process. They cannot be classed as biodegradable or compostable as instead of breaking down naturally, chemical additives allow the material, usually plastic, to break down quicker than a standard plastic bag usually would.
In order to decompose, they need to undergo significant changes in their chemical structure through being subjected to various specific environmental conditions. This results in a loss of properties, in a given period of time.
For example, some materials are capable of being broken down into non-toxic matter, chemically. Tesco has put forward degradable bags, which are still petroleum based, but merely degrade more quickly than ordinary plastic bags and don’t necessarily leave toxic residue behind them disposed of correctly. However, if they aren't disposed of in the right way they end up in landfill and are therefore no better than normal plastic bags.
Biodegradable refers to a product that can be easily decomposed by microorganisms without adding any chemical product. Instead, it is the break down of materials naturally, back to the earth, as a result of a microorganism like bacteria, or fungi etc. Products that are biodegradable are usually made from natural, plant or animal products and in order to be biodegradable have to break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass.
For a material to be classified as biodegradable it has to completely break down in a comparatively short amount of time. It doesn’t need special conditions like composting, but the waste left at the end doesn’t necessarily benefit the soil.
Time for biodegradability will depend on factors like the amount of oxygen, humidity rate and temperature.
Although biodegradable sounds great, not all products that claim to be biodegradable are safe or effective. Some products that claim to biodegradable may produce harmful toxins as they break down, while others can take more than 30 years to break down, or cannot break down in landfills. Always read product labels and reviews when shopping for biodegradable items, and ask the company how they suggest you dispose of the item.
One great thing about many biodegradable packaging or products is that they aren’t as polluting. Some new developments are creating 'plastic esque’ materials using corn, sugar cane and potato starch instead of oil. Biodegradable plastic consumer products produce 68 percent less greenhouse gasses than petroleum-based plastic products, according to Food Service Warehouse.
However, biodegradable waste is in the most part, still contributing to global warming. It can only biodegrade under sufficient light and heath, so although they do decompose back to the earth, when dumped and packed into landfills, which they often are, they cause more harm than good. The bacteria they need to break down does not survive, so they have to break down under anaerobic conditions which emits methane, a highly polluting greenhouse gas.
You may have seen lots of companies using biodegradable plastic packaging, cups or straws etc. many of these may need particular conditions and have to be sent off to industrial biodegradation or composting plants.
Composting is a controlled, accelerated form of biodegradation. Compostable materials are made from organic matter which micro-organism decomposers are able to break down completely to form a highly nutrient-rich soil or “compost. They include leaves, grass clippings and non-animals food scraps. There are some things that may need special prepping but can still go into your home compost like shredded newspaper, glossy papers like receipts and paper bags and things like tissues, paper towels, and natural cotton balls etc. as these don’t compost very quickly.
Things that definitely can’t be composted include coloured papers, inorganic materials like glass, plastic and metal etc. and organic materials that have been mixed with non-organic.
A lot of biodegradable items can be composted in your home compost, however, some can’t, so it’s worth checking with the supplier what conditions the materials actually need. For example, there are a few biodegradable plastics that can only be composted in commercial composting facilities which can maintain high composting temperatures or have traces of environmentally harmful chemicals when they break down.
In order to be classified as 'compostable' the packaging or product needs to comply with certain standards including appropriate biodegradation time, disintegrability and an absence of negative effects on the final compost - you can find out more here.
Compostable materials are great because if they are disposed of in the correct way they not only disappear back to the earth, they also improve water and nutrient retention and help grow healthier plants with less need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Because our kraft paper packaging is made from untreated paper and we only use non-toxic plant-based dyes, it is perfect for composting.
Unfortunately, one problem with compostable packaging and products is that not everyone has their own compost bin or access to one. They need certain conditions in order to break down as they are organic materials. Like biodegradable materials, when they break down without the correct conditions they release methane, polluting the air.
If you are interested in setting up your own composting system at home, check out our introduction to composting here.