Photo credit: Hermes Rivera
We recently had food delivered to the office and written on the cutlery was “100% compostable”. After pointing it out, it sparked a discussion on what that phrase means, because while the fork may be compostable, it may only be so in very specific circumstances. So let’s dive in and see what’s what with stuff that’s recyclable, biodegradable, compostable and renewable.
The definition of the word “recycle” is to convert (waste) into usable (reusable) material. Recycling initiatives have improved globally, and most of us know what the goal is: make less, reuse more.
By melting or breaking down one item, you can create the same raw material again and again. Most commonly used for plastics and metals, by recycling we reduce the amount of new materials needed to be mined, produced and harvested. Many consumer goods these days also say, “Made with X% new/recycled materials”, so keep an eye out for ways to reduce the production of new materials.
Products that are labelled as “biodegradable” have the ability to break down over time in a natural way and turn into the materials of nature. This is similar to how a dead tree decomposes in soil and then helps to grow a new tree.
Using the tag biodegradable on products is unregulated, and there are many products that stretch their ability to biodegrade to near false levels and others that are absolutely biodegradable that never mention so.
For something to be truly biodegradable, one must look at the reasonable time it takes within its original ecosystem to decompose and return to the base building blocks from which it was made. If you read a paperback made from paper originally farmed from trees in the forest you are now hiking in and happen to drop it, it may take mere months to fully turn back into fibres and become part of the surrounding ecosystem. This is consistent with how a leaf grows in the spring, drops and dies in the winter and becomes soil within the next few season cycles. However, a cup made from petroleum products (plastic) may decompose to something else – but in hundreds or thousands of years, and definitely not back into the crude oil from which it came.
The plot thickens… conditions. We hit this topic in our discussion but wanted to boil it down for you. This paragraph sums it up nicely:
“Oil spills are devastating not because oil doesn’t biodegrade, but rather because the amount of oil is much greater than the number of microorganisms available to degrade it… Should a product be called biodegradable if it inherently has the ability to biodegrade or should it only be called biodegradable if it also is commonly disposed of in a way in which it really will biodegrade? For example, should a paper grocery bag be labelled biodegradable? It will biodegrade if placed in nature, however, it won’t biodegrade in a landfill because the conditions aren’t right.”
Biodegradability is inherently dependent upon the conditions in which you place the product. And we also need to consider quantity and density. One issue to think about for the future is separation facilities to distribute waste for managed degrading, much like the rotation of crops and ranching in agricultural lands to increase yields and better crop health.
Similar in scope to being biodegradable, compostable products are very different. Composting is a controlled action in a defined setting with specific end results. A product that is compostable is one that breaks down in specific circumstances, in a set amount of time, and the end product is usable for producing and harbouring plant life. There can be no clumps or high concentration of metals and the CO2 emissions must be within a specified standard (depending on where you are in the world, this changes).
While one requisite of a compostable material is the ability to biodegrade, this needs to be done specifically for an item. You couldn’t dump crude oil in your garden compost pile and have it make fertile soil, but you could dump all the apple cores and fruit peels your four-person home produces in a season.
Unless items are sorted for compostability as well as recyclability, there is no environmental benefit, as the products will not biodegrade outside specific circumstances. The Biodegradable Products Institute has even outlined this fairly obviously on their certification stamp.
Here’s another tagline to throw into the mix. Is bamboo renewable? Are corn-based plastics based on renewable resources? Yes. No. Wait, what?
Think of it this way: an item must be made with (all/some/mostly) annually renewable raw ingredients. If it can be predictably grown each year, it’s renewable. Corn, wheat, barley and bamboo all grow on a predictable schedule. Oil does not.
Does that make it biodegradable? No. As we advance, so do our processing and manufacturing techniques. That same bushel of wheat could be processed and combined with other products and additives to create a compound that no longer breaks down into the ecosystem it originated – or even to pass as a usable medium for plant life from composting. Therefore it is not biodegradable, recyclable or compostable. It’s just trash, made from a resource that is currently renewable.
Hopefully this helps to clarify the buzzwords thrown around lately. If you are interested in learning more about any of these topics, there is a treasure trove of information around the Web – true and false – so be sure to look for scientific accolades, funded research and government or standards initiatives for a fact-based knowledge quest.
Recycled means using existing materials to make new products. These products may or may not be recyclable (again), biodegradable or compostable. *Upcycled is another term, but this applies to using products to create new products, not the breaking down of products to create raw materials for making new products.
Biodegradable refers to products that turn into their base building blocks in ecological time-appropriate periods in specific circumstances.
Compostable products are those that conform to specific decomposing guidelines for eventual use as plant-sustaining nutrients/soil, in specific circumstances, at accelerated rates versus natural biodegradation.
Renewable goods are those that are made by products that can be renewed (grown) at predicable patterns (such as crops). They are not necessarily biodegradable or compostable depending on how they are processed.