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Difference Between Recyclable, Biodegradable & Compostable

We all know that recycling and sustainable living are things we should be thinking about and doing, but even the most eco-conscious of us isn’t always sure what certain terms used on packaging mean. With over 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year (and much more going into landfills), it’s important to know the difference so you can do your part in creating a better, healthier world. 

Today, we’re going to explain what the differences are so you can make empowered decisions about what you buy and how you dispose of your waste.

What does recyclable mean?

Recyclable is the term we are all familiar with, and it’s the one we feel most confident in taking action on. Recyclable means that at least some of its raw materials can be extracted and reused to create new products.

There are generally no downsides to recycling, the only problem with it comes from a lack of infrastructure in place to recycle everything possible and in making it easy enough that even those who aren’t environmentally conscious choose to participate.

What does biodegradable mean?

If something is biodegradable it means that bacteria will be able to break it down over time. While this sounds like a good thing–and generally is–the problem with the term “biodegradable” is it can be used to describe anything that takes between 6 months and a millennium (1000 years). This means that companies can use the term in their marketing, even if their product isn’t actually all that good for the planet. 

When purchasing a product marketed as biodegradable, you should check to see what it contains, since any toxic substances in it will make their way into the environment around it.


What does compostable mean?

Compostable means that it can break down entirely in less than 6 months (or 180 days) and is non-toxic, which means it’s usually made from water, carbon, and other forms of organic matter. That said, if you put a compostable product in your home compost heap it may not break down fully in 180 days due to not having quite the right conditions to do so, but they will still break down relatively quickly.

Which is best for the environment?

All three can be good for the environment, but generally compostable is best, followed by recyclable. Biodegradable can still be very good for the environment, but you need to be aware when buying products that advertise being biodegradable. Unfortunately, “greenwashing” is something companies can still get away with. Greenwashing is where companies use eco-friendly terminology for marketing purposes when in reality, their products aren’t all that good for the environment.

Should I avoid all plastic?

It’s a good idea to avoid plastic where possible, but it’s unrealistic for most of us to avoid all plastic. Avoiding single-use products is not only the easiest but also has the greatest impact (think water bottles, laundry jugs, take-out food containers…). Fortunately, there are more and more eco-friendly products entering the market, to swap out with plastic ones. It’s just a matter of being a conscious consumer. When you buy something made of plastic, look to see if it can be recycled at the end of its lifetime. And when you do buy plastic, do your best to recycle it, even if it’s somewhat inconvenient to do so. It all makes a difference.

If you’re a conscious consumer, you may feel burdened by the enormity of the task ahead of us as a global community. Remember that every small act you do contributes to making the world a better place for all its inhabitants, and be proud of that. If you’re looking to start making sustainable swaps this year, we have lots of fun options available that will lighten your heart and your plastic footprint!

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