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Recyclable vs. Biodegradable vs. Compostable

article courtesy of TheGreenOffice.com

Recyclable- What does it mean?

'Recyclable' products can be collected and reprocessed to produce new items. Common recyclable materials are: paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, aluminum, and electronic waste. Recycling is very important in diverting waste from landfills.

How Do You Identify Recyclable Products?

Many simple paper and plastic products are marked with the universal recycling symbol (at right). Many complex electrical products (mobile phones, computers, printers, etc.) contain parts and materials which can be recycled by disassembling the products. Other products such as batteries, paints and fertilizers can be specially processed to reduce the environmental impact of their disposal. Visit Earth911.org to view a list of products which can be recycled instead of thrown in the trash.

How Do You Dispose of Recyclable Products?

The easiest way to recycle is through your municipal curbside garbage program, assuming such a program is available. Find out what sorts of materials are accepted through this program, and how the materials should be separated to ensure they are processed correctly.

For recycled materials which aren't collected curbside, use a service like Earth911.org to find a local drop-off center.

Biodegradable- What Does It Mean?

'Biodegradable' simply means that a product will break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment. The term 'biodegradable' however has no legal enforcement or definition therefore the term has been used loosely by some manufacturers.

Biodegradability is a desirable feature in products such as cleaning agents. Conventional cleaning agents will often release harmful phosphates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as they break down, but biodegradable versions will not.

How Do You Dispose of Biodegradable Products?

Products that are labeled as 'biodegradable' can be disposed of in your garbage. However, it is important to remember that landfills lack the microorganisms and oxygen required for waste to biodegrade in a timely manner. So you should still try to minimize your use of items that are not recylcable or compostable.

Compostable- What Does It Mean?

'Compostable' products are biodegradable, but with an added benefit: when they break down, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, aiding the growth of trees and plants. These products degrade within several months in an industrial composting facility and produce no toxic residues.

Compostability is a desirable feature in traditionally-disposable products such as plates, bowls, cups and cutlery. These products are commonly made out of PLA (Polylactic acid), bagasse (sugarcane fiber) or vegetable starch. It is environmentally-preferable to use disposable products that are labeled 'compostable' rather than just 'biodegradable'.

How Do You Dispose of Compostable Products?

Products that are labeled 'compostable' should enter an industrial composting facility to fully degrade into organic matter. If your city has a composting facility, place these products in your compost collection bins to be picked up. Compostable products will typically degrade in 30-120 days in an industrial composter, depending on the product size and material used.

  • If your city doesn't provide industrial composting, you can dispose of compostable products in your backyard or home composter, but they will take longer to degrade.

  • If you do not have access to a compost facility or a home composter, dispose of the compostables in the garbage. This option should be your last resort as waste does not easily biodegrade in landfills.

  • Do not put compostables into your recycling! They are not recyclable and will contaminate the recycling process.

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