Sustainability is becoming an increasingly hot topic as people continue to look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and improve the environment. When it comes to packaging, many consumers prefer eco-friendly options, and are even willing to pay a premium for them. More than half (54%) of consumers take sustainable packaging into consideration when selecting a product. However, as more options become available, it can cause some confusion when it comes time to dispose of different types of packaging.
Most of us are familiar with recyclable materials, but what about compostable and biodegradable? While these concepts appear similar, there are some critical differences to know. Most importantly, just because something is biodegradable does not necessarily mean that it’s compostable or recyclable.
Let’s dig in and break down the differences between recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable.
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. You can recycle things like plastic bottles, glass jars, aluminum cans, paper, and cardboard. Recycling helps conserve resources and divert waste from landfills.
Each city has its own rules dictating what can and cannot be recycled, so it is always best to check with your local municipality before tossing items into your recycling bin. Putting something into your recycling bin that does not belong can have adverse effects. When your recycling becomes contaminated with food or non-recyclable items, it can compromise the whole batch, causing it to end up in the landfill. For example, only recycle pizza boxes if they are free from any grease, cheese, or other food remnants. If part of the box is contaminated with food, you can compost that portion and recycle the rest.
Biodegradable means that a substance can break down naturally without causing any harm. The term is assigned to products that can disintegrate into natural elements—such as carbon dioxide and water vapor—with the help of bacteria, fungi, and other biological processes. In reality, nearly everything is biodegradable, but some products can take centuries to break down. In the meantime, they can have dire environmental consequences.
Much like the term “natural,” there is not much oversight when it comes to labeling things biodegradable. Products like biodegradable bags require specific conditions for proper decomposition, and you cannot recycle them. When these items end up in landfills, they are deprived of the necessary elements and may produce harmful greenhouse emissions when they decompose. For this reason, these products can sometimes cause more harm than good.
Finally, composting is a microbial process that converts organic materials into a nutrient-rich, soil-like substance. This process allows organic matter to return to the earth, rather than ending up in a landfill where it improperly decomposes and creates methane gas. All compostable items are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable items are compostable.
Compostable packaging breaks down in a backyard composting system (with some exceptions) or a commercial composting facility. This is a good alternative for food packaging, as food can often contaminate recyclable containers. However, you should never put compostable packaging in your recycling bin as it will contaminate the recycling process.
Paper- or wood-based compostable containers can technically go in any compost bin, including your GEOBIN® Composter. Bioplastic compostable containers should only be composted through commercial composting.
If your municipality has a commercial composting program, compostable trash bags are a great way to collect and store food and yard waste. These types of 100% compostable bags are developed specifically for municipal curbside pickup. While you should avoid using them in your backyard composting system, compostable trash bags are an ideal option for supporting your local food and yard waste collection programs.
To learn more about composting, head over to our Beginner’s Guide to Composting.