What is the difference between Compostable, Recyclable and Biodegradable?

In this post we’ll define what Compostable, Recyclable and Biodegradable actually means.



In this post we’ll define what Compostable, Recyclable and Biodegradable acutally means. Companies today are more socially responsible and aware of their environmental footprints than ever before, But do we truly understand what these terms mean and why they are important to ‘sustainability’ and the impact on the evironment. The definitions are sometimes vague and there’s no way of knowing how much of an impact you’re having on the environment. As defined by Youmatter Sustainability is usually defined as the processes and actions through which humankind avoids the depletion of natural resources, in order to keep an ecological balance that doesn’t allow the quality of life of modern societies to decrease.  Characterized improvements in areas like natural resource overexploitation, manufacturing operations (its energy use and polluting subproducts), the linear consumption of products, the direction of investments, citizen lifestyle, consumer purchasing behaviours, technological developments or business and general institutional changes. As long as an action causes little, less, or no harm to the natural world.


So what is the difference between Compostable, Recyclable and Biodegradable?


Recycling is the process of taking a product and breaking it down to use it again, often as a raw material.

Composting is a way to turn items made of natural materials back into a nutrient rich soil.

Biodegradable is a substance that can break down naturally without causing any harm. 


Why is knowing what the difference between Compostable, Recyclable and Biodegradable Important?


“Recyclable”, “compostable”, and, “biodegradable,” are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably when describing materials. However, there are important differences between them which are significant – especially when it comes to being less wasteful, using resources correctly and making sustainable choices.


As discribed by Statista Municipal solid waste (MSW) consists of various everyday items, such as uneaten food, household appliances, clothing, and plastic packaging. Once collected by the appointed company, waste is then transported to sites to be either landfilled, recycled, composted, or recovered. Although recycling rates have been improving, landfilling is still the most common form of waste disposal and treatment worldwide

# Recyclable


These are materials that can be reprocessed into new products. Materials like glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles, and electronics can all be recycled.  There are many other materials that can be recycled. Following the “reduce, reuse, recycle,” waste hierarchy this prevents resources being lost into landfill or incineration. Items can either be recycled into the same product (e.g. glass bottles into glass bottles) or into a lower grade material (e.g. writing paper into a loo roll)


As per Macfarlane packaging Recycling is the process of converting used materials into something new, keeping products away from a landfill, for longer. But there are limits to how many times some materials can be recycled. Retailers and manufacturers can help customers by including clearer recycling information on their packaging.


The finite number of times some materials can be recycled before they are unusable and have to go to landfill (link)

  • Plastic has fibres a bit like paper, and the fibres shorten each time it is recycled. This means plastic can be recycled 7-9 times before it is no longer recyclable.
  • Every time paper is recycled the fibres shorten. It is estimated paper can be recycled 4-6 times.
  • Glass, steel and aluminium lose no quality during recycling and can be recycled endlessly.


Many of us grew up with the saying: reduce, reuse and recycle. As a refresher, this means that we should reduce the amount of waste that goes into your landfill, reuse items more than once and recycle any items that are no longer appropriate to use.


Technically everything is recyclable, but It’s really what’s recyclable given your available current collection, sorting, and processing infrastructure. Why? Because that one iffy thing can actually be enough to compromise a full batch of recycling, which could mean everything ends up in the landfill instead of just the one questionable item. In those situations, the best option would be to confirm before you dispose of it. But, if you don’t know, don’t just hope it can be recycled.


That little symbol at the bottom of products that you buy is almost irrelevant, if you really want to make sure that something’s recyclable, then you need to call up your recycler. Additionally, most recycling can’t deal with food contamination.


# Compostable


Compostable, on the other hand, means that a product can break down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass in small pieces in about 90 days. This rate is similar to items you might see in a backyard compost, such as leaves and paper. Compost works because millions of tiny microbes consume the waste and transform the organic material into compost. Compost has many beneficial uses including fertilizing and improving soil health— without producing toxic residue, because it’s already organic.


But, what happens if you have items that are compostable but don’t have access to composting and these items end up in just in your standard trash bin? You might think that it’s still an improvement and they will break down, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not exactly the case. Compostable items break down into nutrient rich soil only if they have the right conditions. And a traditional landfill is not a place with the right conditions.


Industrial facilities have the optimal conditions for composting. These facilities regulate temperature, moisture, and air flow in order to ensure a compostable item breaks down as fast as possible. At-home compost is more prone to temperature/moisture/air flow changes and might not break down as quickly as it would in an industrial setting.


Composting works best when the items have access to oxygen and are regularly being turned over. A landfill is basically the opposite. It’s an anaerobic environment where most of the pile actually doesn’t have access to oxygen.


To be classified as compostable, products must meet specific requirements defined in The European Standard EN 13432. Composting is a controlled process that usually happens in an industrial composting facility – compostable products are not suitable for home composting unless the product has been certified as Home Compostable. It is, therefore, important to check the label to make sure the product is properly disposed of.


Compostable products, defined by ASTM International standards D6400 or D6868, biodegrade in commercial composting facilities at a specified rate (usually 180 days or less).


# Biodegradable


Although compostable and biodegradable are often used interchangeably, they do not mean the same. Biodegradable means that a product can be broken down naturally by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi under certain conditions (temperature, humidity, etc.), without oxygen and turn into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time, and the base components are not harmful to the evironment.  However, any product will eventually break down. But even natural products such as banana skin can take 2 years to biodegrade when thrown away.


Therefore, man-made or chemically produced items can still be considered biodegradable, while not necessarily being compostable. Those items that are compostable are also biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable.


In Closing


The debate about which (recyclable, biodegradable or compostable) is best for the environment is ongoing and there’s no single answer to this question. All come with their own benefits and limitations but are a step forward in considering more sustainable alternatives. There is however more investment needed in Recycling (Biodegradable technology is still young + – 2 years, hence we don’t have enough data to prove at what rate the products are able to biodegrade – i.e it may end up in tiny pieces, or it may completely disappear, we don’t really know that as yet).


At Waxpak, As a plastic packaging manufacturer, we develop food grade packaging solutions mainly in rPET, Polypropylene and High impact polystyrene- all our materials contain at least 50% post-consumer recycled waste and at least 30% industry recycled waste. More recently we have been able to offer 100% rPET solutions! All Our thermoform films are manufactured in-house using the latest extrusion machinery and technology.


We can also provide Breakdown-PET – a revolutionary biodegradable rPET that decomposes in a few years rather than centuries!


Everything we manufacture is 100% recyclable and we welcome drop off’s at our facility in Chamdor, Krugersdorp. With a reputation for stringent quality to exacting standards, we hold A BRC Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials

“Compostable vs. recyclable vs. biodegradable” Foodee, 01 March 2018, https://www.food.ee/blog/compostable-vs-recyclable-vs-biodegradable/

“Compostable vs Biodegradable” BioBag, https://www.biobagusa.com/environment/compostable-and-biodegradable/

Zang-Schwartz, Emma.“Biodegradable vs Compostable vs Recyclable” Because health, 01 July 2019, https://www.becausehealth.org/biodegradable-vs-compostable-vs-recyclable-2639048669.html

Hilmantel, Robin.“Compostable vs. Biodegradable vs. Recyclable” QRS Magazine, March 2009, https://www.qsrmagazine.com/sustainability/compostable-vs-biodegradable-vs-recyclable


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