Biodegradable, Compostable, Reusable, Recyclable: Defining these terms
There are a lot of buzzwords thrown around by sustainability bloggers and by brands on their packaging. Things like: "Eco-friendly", "sustainable", and "green". They all sound well and good, but do they all mean the same thing? I'm here to clear up confusion around some of the most utilised words by brands who are marketing environmentally sustainable products.
Increasingly, more consumers are considering the life of a product after they finish using it. Once you finish that drink bottle, use that tube of toothpaste or grow out of that t-shirt, what happens to it? There are four values we want our products to have to ensure their afterlife is as environmentally-friendly as possible: Being biodegradable, compostable, reusable or recyclable. You probably know the textbook definition of these words, but what do these titles mean for sustainability?
Biodegradable means the item can be broken down by bacteria and will eventually disintegrate or disappear, rather than continuing to exist forever like some plastics bacteria cannot eat. For example, we know that if we drop a potato on the ground, it will eventually be eaten away by bacteria until it ceases to exist, but if we drop a sunscreen bottle that bottle may never disappear because bacteria cannot use it as a source of food. From a sustainability perspective, ultimately you want everything you buy to be biodegradable. It's not always feasible because some things genuinely don't exist with biodegradable packaging yet (hello, medication) but the ultimate goal would be total biodegradability of everything we produce.
If something is compostable, it means it's able to biodegrade in a compost environment without damaging the soil. What's the difference between biodegrading and composting? To be used in a composting bin a material must be proven to biodegrade within a reasonable time frame (usually three months) and not to leave waste in the composted soil. Items able to biodegrade may take years to breakdown and can still leave trace metals, but compostable items are those that quickly provide nutrition for the soil and do not leave toxins behind.
An item will be marketed as reusable if it's something that is used more than once, e.g. the packaging can be washed or re-filled, or the item itself exists to replace disposable products. Examples are eco cleaning cloths that can be machine washed and used for a long time, compared to a single-use paper towel or disposable cloths. This label is less a type of packaging, and more an alternative kind of item we should be looking to source. Items that can be used again and again and again are a massive sustainability plus!
An item is considered recyclable if it's materials can be salvaged and used for something else. This labelling means that the item can ideally be recycled, but it may not be recycled simply because you toss it in the recycling bin. Read more on the discrepancy between what can be recycled and what really is recycled in this post. This differs from biodegradable items as the most recycled items such as aluminium, gum and glass would take centuries to decompose so they are used and reused in different forms. If you have to get something without biodegradable packaging, it's best to ensure you're buying something that can at least be recycled and kept useful in the economy, rather than sitting in a landfill like a lot of plastics. For example, buying a condiment in glass puts the glass back into the recycling cycle, but buying the same condiment in petroleum-based plastic would just end up with the bottle in a landfill. It's an imperfect system, but there are still benefits to choosing recyclables over non-recyclables.
So those are the breakdown of four common terms when looking to increase the sustainability of your purchases. What are some other confusing aspects of trying to pare down your waste? Let me know what else you'd like to see in a blog in the comments below, or send me a message on Instagram!
Thanks so much for reading.