Why you need to know the difference between biodegradable, compostable and recyclable!

Do you get excited when you see that something is biodegradable? Or feel a rush of elation when you find out that an item is compostable? Don’t worry – you’re not alone. Although these materials can have great environmental benefits, it is vitally important to understand the difference between them, and why they do not belong in your kerbside recycling. 

What does biodegradable mean?

There’s a lot of buzz around the word ‘biodegradable’. A massive misconception is that just because something is biodegradable it will break down in less time than normal plastics, which can take thousands of years. 

The simple definition of biodegradable is ‘a material or object that when exposed to microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi,’ will eventually break down into natural elements such as water or carbon dioxide. ‘Eventually’ however, could mean hundreds of years.

What do I do with biodegradable packaging?

Do not put biodegradable plastics in your kerbside recycling bin; they need to be sent to a high temperature industrial composting facility. Biodegradable materials will contaminate your plastic recycling stream and end up in a landfill. A landfill environment does not have sufficient oxygen levels and conditions to break down this type of packaging and will release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What does compostable mean?

The major difference between a compostable material and a biodegradable material is that compostable products are made from organic materials or plants. When compostable products break down, they produce humus, which is the richest part of all soils to promote plant growth.

What do I do with compostable packaging? 

Compostable products do not belong in your recycling. You also need to be careful about putting things that are marked as compostable into your home compost as they will only break down in industrial composts. 

Here are some helpful hints from Choice magazine:

  • Biodegradable will biodegrade, but generally not as quickly as compostable plastic. Look for products that state they are 100% biodegradable and show the disposal method.
  • Compostable will biodegrade in a commercial compost facility. Look for the Australian Standard number (AS 4736-2006) on the label.
  • Home compostable is the best option if you have a home compost bin. Look for the Australian Standard number (AS 5810-2010) on the label.

But lookout for these:

  • Bio or plant-based means the plastic is made from plant materials rather than fossil fuels, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is biodegradable or compostable.
  • Bioplastic is a confusing industry term that has two meanings – it could mean the plastic is biodegradable/compostable or that it is made from plant materials. Ignore this term, as it’s not reliable.
  • Degradable is neither biodegradable nor compostable.

That brings us to recycling!

Pretty much any material can technically be recycled, but it comes down to what is accepted in your kerbside recycling – read more about how to check what is accepted in your council recycling, here

Here at TerraCycle, we specialise in recycling things that are deemed unrecyclable or things that are frequently rejected by council recycling. If you’re looking for a free recycling solution for a hard-to-recycle item, visit our website and select your region to check out some of our national recycling programs.

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