What's the difference between biodegradable, biobased, compostable, reusable, recyclable?

In your quest to do your bit for the environment, you’ll have heard a multitude of terms. Like, products that are labelled recyclable are seemingly good and you can pop them in the recycle container on trash day – but what about when your packaging or product is labelled biodegradable or compostable? What does that mean, are they good, and what is the difference?

Firstly, it’s important to highlight the issue with single-use plastics. Items like straws, bags, and cotton buds made out of plastic serve a single purpose and are then, after, quickly disposed of. It takes hundreds of years for these petroleum-based plastics to breakdown. Right now, we currently lack the technology to recycle plastic more efficiently. They end up in landfills where they are buried in the soil, releasing toxic chemicals, or they end up at the bottom of our oceans – wreaking havoc on our maritime ecosystems as become part of the food chain.

As the plastic pollution problem becomes increasingly more devastating, new materials are being developed in an attempt to alleviation the problem. On top of this, natural materials are being highlighted as a way to return nutrients back to nature. The perfect product would be made with low and minimal impact to the environment, and it should be disposed of where it can serve as healthy food for the planet.

So, all that being said, what’s the deal with reusable, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable?

Reusable

After a product has served its initial purpose (e.g. a container) it can be considered reusable if it can be reused or repurposed without any treatment – except maybe a rinse!

Recyclable

Products and materials that are able to be broken down, repurposed, and reused are considered recyclable.

Biodegradable

Products and materials that are able to break down completely and decompose into natural elements within a year or so without causing environmental harm are considered biodegradable. It means that they will eventually decay without releasing toxins into the earth.

Biobased

Products that are sourced from natural resources and ingredients are considered biobased. These are materials like polylactic acid (PLA). However, this does not mean that the composition of the material is biodegradable. It might not be able to biodegrade, or it might take an extremely long time for it to decompose.  

Compostable

Products and materials that can only be decomposed back into natural elements under certain composting conditions (of temperature, weather etc) are considered compostable. It is important to understand what the composting conditions are for certain materials. For example, an item can be labelled as compostable but it will require special treatment, usually from an industry installation, for it to breakdown fully and effectively.