Recyclable, Degradable, Biodegradable and Compostable: What's the Difference?

Reusable Nation - compostable, biodegradable, degradable or recyclable?

Are products that are recycled, recyclable, degradable, biodegradable and compostable equally eco-friendly? What’s the difference?

It can be a struggle to figure out which of these a product is, if it is genuinely what it is said to be and where you can dispose of it so it actually degrades/is actually composted (Spoiler alert!: anything sent to landfill does not biodegrade easily and does not decompose).

That is why we decided to write a definite guide to the difference between:

  • products that are recycled,
  • products that are recyclable,
  • products that are degradable,
  • products that are biodegradable, and
  • products that are compostable.

It also includes which of these to avoid, how to best dispose of each and the difference between products that are home compostable and commercially compostable, as well as the standards these products have to adhere to, so you can figure out if they are actually a better option.

 

Products That Are Recycled Versus Products That Are Recyclable

This one needs to be read carefully! That -ed and -able at the end make a big difference.

Products that are recycled are products that have already been recycled. They were products that were recyclable, and someone has put them in a recycling bin and these were used to make a new product.

Recycled products are not necessarily recyclable. In fact, 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.

This is why one of the reasons why recycling paper and plastic is not the answer to our waste problem. It still ends up in landfill. It just takes a detour.

When recycled, products are not remade into the original product, but they are generally downcycled, meaning they are broken down into their original elements and turned into a lower-value product like a park bench.

Upcycling is better as this is the creation of usable products from waste or unwanted items, for example backpacks made from material offcuts that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

Precycling is the most sustainable solution; it means not purchasing unnecessary items (or products in unnecessary packaging) that will eventually become waste – another way of saying going zero waste!

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.

Always buy recycled products over new products to support the system of recycling and always buy recyclable products over non-recyclable products.

 

Products That Are Degradable Versus Products That Are Biodegradable

Degradable sounds good, but degradable plastic is actually the worst form of plastic you can buy! Degradable is a word often used in greenwashing, which aims to make consumers feel like they are making an eco-friendly choice, but the product is not actually good for the environment at all.

Degradable plastic does break down, but it only breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic quicker than normal plastic thanks to a chemical additive! Degradable itself means a substance that can change into a simpler chemical structure, especially over time. This means that degradable plastic does not decompose but remains as tiny pieces of plastic called microplastic forever.

So, degradable or oxo-degradable plastic is a big NO and actually worse than regular plastic bags. Avoid!

Biodegradable means something entirely different – it means a substance that is able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful. Microorganisms can break down (decompose) biodegradable products.

For example, biodegradable plastic bags are made from plant-based materials like corn and wheat starch and these will rot naturally.

Much better! However, the catch is that the conditions need to be right for these products to biodegrade. These conditions usually include high temperatures and UV light.

And, most biodegradable products create the greenhouse gas, methane if they break down in landfill, as in landfill, they are forced to break down without the help of oxygen.

So, sending biodegradable products to landfill is just as bad.

Products labelled as biodegradable will biodegrade, but in most cases this process will not be as quick as compostable products and there is no standard governing the label biodegradable in Australia yet. You want products that are labelled as 100% biodegradable and that explain how to dispose of it.

Be wary of greenwashing terms like bio- or plant-based and bioplastic. These terms cannot be trusted.

Products labelled as bio- or plant-based and bioplastic are not necessarily biodegradable or compostable. This can simply mean that it is made from plant materials.

Make sure that there is a bio- before the degradable on any products you buy. These are still not the best option, however, as these products can’t be composted in a home compost bin or in a composting facility. You 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.

The problem with biodegradable products is that yes, they will biodegrade, but what often isn’t shared is how long it will take to biodegrade. Most things will biodegrade eventually, but this can take years and years.

For instance, with landfill biodegradable products, it is claimed that they will decompose in typical landfill conditions much faster than traditional plastics, but they do not say how long this will take, only saying it will be faster than traditional plastic products with an indefinite life span.

Compostable products biodegrade much faster than biodegradable products.

 

Products That Are Compostable: Home Compostable Versus Commercially Compostable

If a product is labelled as compostable, it does not mean you can chuck it in your home compost and it will biodegrade.

More often than not, this is not the case.

Compostable bags do biodegrade, but, again, they will only do this under certain conditions. And, a lot of the time these conditions can only be achieved in a commercial industrial compost.

And, these are hard to come by. Many countries and people don’t have the option of sending these items to a composting facility, so these end up in landfill, where, as with biodegradable products, there is no guarantee that they will biodegrade in an eco-friendly way or at all.

If you are lucky enough to have a council that collects your food waste, you may be able to put these commercially compostable items in with your food scraps if your council sends this to a commercial composting facility. Contact your local council to find out.

Do not put compostables into your recycling! They are generally not recyclable and will contaminate the recycling process.

In Australia, it is currently voluntary for manufacturers to verify that their products conform to composting standards. This needs to change!

But, in the meantime, only buy compostable products that are labelled as home compostable and compost these in your composter or wherever you compost your food scraps (if you don’t have one, we share were to find one in our Composting 101 article). In Australia, these will have Australian Standard number AS 5810-2010 on the label.

If they are simply labelled as compostable, chances are that they will only biodegrade in a commercial compost facility. The Australian Standard for compostable products that will biodegrade in a commercial compost facility is AS 4736-2006. If this is on the label, it is only commercially compostable.

If you’re not in Australia, find out what the standards are in your country and stick to buying compostable products displaying the standard number that shows that they are home compostable.

Cardboard is compostable, so it can be placed in the home compost, especially greasy pizza boxes and cardboard trays covered in food residue, which can't be recycled. If we find ourselves unprepared in a food truck park or at a market, we seek out the food stall selling food in a cardboard tray or box and take it home to be composted.

 

Avoid the Confusion

The best option? Refuse or reuse, of course!

For example, when it comes to bin liners, go naked or use newspaper to line your bin. And use reusable coffee cups over compostable 'I am not plastic' takeaway cups and your own reusable container such as a tiffin instead of bioplastic takeaway food containers.

If refusing or reusing isn’t an option, seek home compostable options or simply compostable options if you are able to get them to a commercial composting facility.