Sorting through the Trash Talk: a guide to understanding recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable materials
When it comes to materials, there are some 'sustainability' terms that get thrown around a lot: recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable. Each of these terms refers to a different way that the material can be processed after it has been used, and each has its own pros and cons. As product designers or even consumers of these materials/products/packaging, it can be tough to navigate!
... But don't worry, we're here to help 'break down' these topics so that you can make more informed, planet-friendly decisions.
Let's start with recycled materials. These are products that have already been used and then reprocessed into new products. For example, recycled paper is made from paper that has already been used and then processed into new paper products. Recycling is an important way to reduce waste and conserve resources, as it can reduce the need for raw materials and energy-intensive manufacturing processes. But it's worth noting that the recycling process can be complex and costly, and not all recyclable products are actually recycled.
Next, we have recyclable materials. These are products that can be reused after they've been thrown away. For example, plastic bottles are often recyclable, meaning they can be collected, processed, and turned into new plastic products. But, as we mentioned earlier, not all recyclable products are actually recycled (in fact, of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10% has been recycled...).
We then have biodegradable materials. These are products that are able to break down and disintegrate back into the Earth, and are often made from natural materials like paper. But it's worth noting that biodegradable materials may not necessarily be good for the soil; in fact, some biodegradable products may leave behind toxic residues.
Finally, we have compostable materials. These are products that break down quickly and turn into nutrient-rich soil under specific conditions. Compostable products are often made from natural materials like food waste and plant fibres, and the composting process itself is a powerful way to reduce methane emissions (a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide!). In fact, food waste and other organic materials in landfills are one of the largest contributors to climate change. By composting these materials instead of sending them to landfills, we can significantly reduce these emissions.
However, just like how a cake needs the right amount of ingredients, temperature, and time in the oven to turn out perfectly, compostable materials need to be exposed to the right conditions to break down and become nutrient-rich soil. Sometimes this can be done at home with home composting, but commercially compostable packaging can only break down when sent to an industrial composting facility.
So, which type of packaging material is best?
Like many topics in the sustainability space, the answer is: it depends. In this case, it depends largely on where you (or your customers) live, and the facilities you (or they) have access to.
Biodegradable packaging can be a good choice if you're looking for something that will break down in landfill, but keep in mind that it may not necessarily be good for the soil. Compostable packaging is an excellent choice if you're looking to reduce waste and improve soil quality, but it requires you/your customers to have access to the right composting facilities (note: some materials can be composted at home and don't require industrial facilities - and should be labelled as such). Recyclable materials are better than their single-use counterparts, but remember that not all recyclable products are actually recycled.