Recyclable, Biodegradable, Compostable: A Definitive Guide
Becoming more mindful about the types of products you purchase—and how to dispose of them once you’re finished—can do wonders for our environment (case in point: It takes nearly 450 years for a single plastic bottle to decompose). But that doesn’t make cutting through the clutter any easier. Similarly to defining the difference between natural, organic, and clean beauty, a lot of the terms in the sustainability world seem the same but are very, very different. Not being able to distinguish between them can turn a good intention into a wasted effort.
We often see the phrases “recyclable”, “biodegradable”, and “compostable” strewn across packaging and assume they’re good for the environment, but what do these terms actually mean and how do you properly dispose of them? Keep scrolling for our handy guide.
Perhaps the most universally recognized of the three, recycling turns objects that would otherwise be thrown in the trash into something reusable by breaking them down and using their materials to create something new. Note: A product that is recyclable is not the same as one made with recycled materials, although it can be both. Most of us were taught at an early age to toss our paper, glass, cardboard, aluminum, and plastic in a recycling bin instead of the trash, but turns out it's a bit more complicated than that.
What to Do:
Learn what’s recyclable
It’s not enough to check if an item is tagged with the universal recycling symbol (which looks like three folded arrows that form a triangle) before recycling it. That’s because recycling guidelines are unique to the area you live in; an item that is recyclable in one area may be considered trash in the next. Always take note of which items your city accepts. While it may seem like no big deal to just guess if something is accepted or not, tossing items that aren’t actually recyclable in a recycling bin can contaminate the entire lot, causing other perfectly recyclable items to head straight to the landfill.
Always rinse out your recyclables before tossing them in the bin. Leftover residue can become a breeding ground for bacteria, affecting the quality of the material (and others in the bin with it) and deeming it unusable after all. No need to break out the soap and sponge, a quick rinse with water will do the trick (and you can skip drying off).
Reduce and Reuse First
It’s always best to reduce our waste in the first place, so whenever possible, cut back on the amount of single-use items you purchase and try to find another use for them before tossing. This especially goes for plastic items; while there’s no limit to how many times (most) glass) and aluminum can be recycled, plastic has a shorter lifespan and will eventually become unusable.
The majority of our skincare line is recyclable. Check out our guide to learn how to recycle your beauty products.
The definition of biodegradable means an item is “capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms)”. Basically, something that is biodegradable will naturally decompose into the Earth on its own. For example, cotton, bamboo, and paper are biodegradable but most plastic bottles are not.
Important to note: Products that are labeled biodegradable should break down in a “reasonable amount of time”, but there’s no stipulation stating exactly how long that will take. The conditions must also be prime; many biodegradable products that end up in landfills may not actually decompose properly due to the lack of air and light that contribute to the decaying process. Lastly, biodegradable items aren’t necessarily beneficial when decomposed into the Earth. If they aren’t, they may be releasing methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere as it decays. If they are, those items are considered compostable.
What to Do:
If a product is labeled biodegradable, you should first determine if it’s also compostable or not (more on that next). If it isn’t, toss into your trash like normal.
As we mentioned, items that are compostable are also biodegradable (but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable). The major difference is that compostable items often decay at a much faster pace (typically 90-120 days) than biodegradable ones and their breakdown is beneficial to the Earth’s soil.
What to Do:
Composting your scraps is one of the most eco-friendly forms of waste disposal as it leaves behind no harmful toxins and creates something called humus—a nutrient-rich soil that’s good for the Earth. Banana peels, pet food, dryer lint, and yard waste (like grass clippings and leaves) are some common compostable items. You can compost these types of scraps at home (the EPA has a helpful guide) but unless a product states its okay for home composting, you should bring it to a commercial facility instead.
1. Cho, Renee, et al. “The Truth About Bioplastics.” State of the Planet, 20 Nov. 2018, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/.
2. “Green Guides.” Federal Trade Commission, 22 Aug. 2019, www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising/green-guides.
3. RecycleNation. “How Many Times Can Recyclables Be Recycled?” RecycleNation, 19 June 2017, recyclenation.com/2017/06/how-many-times-can-recyclables-be-recycled/.
4. Rittenhouse, Thea. “Tipsheet: Compost.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program, July 2015.
5. Song, J H, et al. “Biodegradable and Compostable Alternatives to Conventional Plastics.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 27 July 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873018/.
6. “What Happens to the Plastic We Throw Out.” National Geographic, 24 May 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/the-journey-of-plastic-around-the-globe/.