Green Business Bureau Blog
Biodegradable, Compostable, Recyclable… Oh My!
For a couple of decades now we have been hearing about how we need to be green if we want our kids and grandkids to have a safe and healthy world to live in. The term “green” has worked its way into our vocabulary just as easily as the terms “Internet” and “cyberspace”. And there is really no question about what it means…living green means doing our best to keep our earth natural and green like the trees and the leaves.
But other jargon has also entered our lexicon that can be a little confusing and has sometimes been used interchangeably when the terms really need to stand on their own. Three words deserve a closer look: biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable.
Biodegradability – Beneficial or Not It seems a pretty common understanding that biodegradable means that a product can be broken down – it will degrade. Sometimes interpreted to mean “environmentally friendly”, that is not always the case. Most items will degrade somehow and over some length of time. All too often, common products take a very long time to biodegrade and do not break down as ecologically beneficially as we would want them to.
Items are made of several elements. Typically they contain carbon, hydrogen, and water. Over time these items will break down to their original ingredients. If all items broke down into carbon, hydrogen, and water, that might be okay – even safe. But unfortunately there are products that have elements other than these three and they break down into elements that are not so safe for the environment nor for humans or animals. While a product might claim to be “biodegradable”, it might not degrade into an ecologically beneficial form.
So how can you make sure the products you buy are environmentally friendly? Learn about commonly harmful ingredients used in the products you potentially buy, such as fertilizers and cleaning products. Try to stick to products with natural ingredients and let manufacturers know that you want products that are safe for you, your family, and the earth. Companies listen when you speak with words (emails, letters, etc.) and more importantly with your money. Buy the products proven to be good for the environment.
Compostablity – You Can Do It Composting is a process that is very popular with green homeowners. It is very similar to biodegrading in that it is the process by which an organic product breaks down to its original elements. The noun “compost” is used to describe the result of the decomposing of organic materials. Home composters use compost (a humus-like substance) to enhance the quality of their gardens.
Biodegradable vs. Compostable While these terms seem very similar, it is typically the environment in which they are performed that make the difference. The term biodegrade is used in describing the commercial process similar to composting. Businesses use commercial methods to decompose products in a safe and timely manner (often speeding up the process for items that take a long time to decompose). Composting typically describes the method in which nature decomposes a product quickly (and safely) with little intervention.
Recyclable – And Sensible On the contrary, something that is recyclable is not usually broken down into its organic state. Nor does a natural process occur (with or without intervention) to create an organic end-product such as with biodegradation or composting. Recycling is a conscious effort to break down an item by hand (or machine), usually without changing the chemical make-up of it, so that the raw materials can be used to create another product (or to renew the same product).
There are several benefits to recycling.
- Typically materials gleaned out of the recycling process are used in place of newly created raw materials. Adapting recycled materials often uses less energy than creating new materials.
- Recycling reduces the need to use resources that are limited or are costly to replace. For example, recycling paper prevents the depletion of forests that are on the decline anyway due to the growth of communities.
- Recycling prevents materials that can be useful from being sent to landfills.
It All Adds Up Any way you slice it, biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable products make good sense for our planet. The reuse of materials, whether broken down into organic substances or used in more complex forms, prevents the needless waste of costly energy. The more we reuse products, the less expensive they become. The more we employ processes to create reusable products, the less expensive the processes cost to operate. It all makes good sense for consumers as well as businesses to use these practices on a daily basis.