Is it Recyclable, Compostable or Biodegradable?

Oct 4, 2017 - 2:00 pm

Header image: Is it recyclable, compostable or biodegradeable?

By Alyson Crowley

Biodegradable, compostable and recyclable— what’s the difference? If you’ve ever had confusion about the three, you aren’t alone. To start, each recovery-process helps sustain the environment by lessening our dependence on local landfills, but in three different ways (each) with unique end products or benefits.

What is Recyclable?Unsure if something is recyclable? Check out our What Do I Do With tool!

This is probably the most familiar method of keeping valuable materials out of landfills. We’ve seen the recycling symbol on products, outdoor dumpsters and on recycling bins, usually paired with signs that include pictures of items that can and can’t be recycled.

A recyclable product is an item that can be collected, separated or otherwise recovered from the waste stream to manufacture another product or for reuse. Basically, recyclable products can be turned into something new. Most plastics, glass, cardboard and metals are recyclable.

Compostable Defined

A simple explanation is that composting is Mother Nature’s way of recycling. Think about tree leaves; they fall and cover plants and tree roots, protecting them from frost and holding in water during drought. By spring, the leaves break down and become a natural fertilizer for the soil and surrounding plants. This perfect natural cycle repeats itself—no landfill needed.Pull-out quote: So, what can be composted? One way to remember is the phrase, ‘If it grows, it goes.’

The technical definition, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Green Guide, states there must be scientific evidence that the materials being called (labeled), ‘compostable’, break down or become part of usable compost in a safe and timely manner, in a proper composting facility or home compost pile. Take a deep breath here.

So, what can be composted? One way to remember is the phrase, ‘If it grows, it goes.’ Organic materials such as food scraps, yard trimmings and even food-soiled paper was once a living plant, therefore, it can be composted.

The result of composting is a soil-conditioning fertilizer that helps soil retain water and grow vibrant, healthy plants without using chemicals. Composting organic materials also reduces the amount of trash sent to the landfill, which means residents can save money by downsizing their landfill trash carts. Check out Austin Resource Recovery’s Going Green guide for more details on composting.

What is Biodegradable?

O.K., this one is kind of tough to differentiate from compostable as both terms are commonly misused. So back to the FTC for an official definition.

The FTC’s Green Guide says a product is biodegradable as long as it “will completely break down and return to nature.” It needs to decompose into items found in nature and the process has to happen within a reasonably short amount of time. The item will continue to disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces until micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and algae) are able to eat it.

biodegradeable process image

Sounds similar to compost, right? It is, except that compostable materials break down into “humus,” which provides valuable nutrients to the soil. Biodegradable products just return to nature, disintegrating completely, but not adding any nutrients. If a "biodegradeable" product does not have the BPI logo on the box, it does not meet the Biodegradeable Product Institue's standards and could potentially release metals or toxins into the humus and soil.

BPI certified logo

Now that we’ve shed light on some misconceptions surrounding these terms, we hope you’ll know even more about how you can help Austin reach Zero Waste by 2040.