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Are compostable, bio-degradable and recyclable labels identical?

With the growing awareness about the rapid environmental degradation and the need to take preventive action, sustainable practices are now the talk of the hour. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprint are are taking corrective measures. Several consultancies have also surfaced that helps businesses compute their carbon footprint and compare theirs to that of the peers in the similar market segment. Whilst the Corporates are doing their parts, individuals are also becoming socially responsible and pay heed to proper recycling of products to help with the environmental conservation. However, often times, terms like “bio-degradable”, “compostable” and “recyclable” are used interchangeably. But, are they really synonymous? In short, NO. To know the details, read on.

What does bio-degradable mean?

Bio-degradable products are those that can be broken down into simpler, innocuous products like carbon dioxide (CO2), water, etc., by the actions of microbes in a reasonable time span. Unfortunately, there is no ticking clock that officially states what is a “reasonable” time span so one could argue that even plastic is bio-degradable as one fine day it will be broken down. But given that some of the plastics take up to 1000 years to break down, a “reasonable” time span would be anything less than that for a product to be considered as bio-degradable. So, next time you hear about bio-degradable plastic, you should take it with a grain of salt.

What does compostable mean?

Compostable products are those that can be broken down into simpler, innocuous in a much smaller time span (something of the order of 2-3 months). Thus, the major difference between “compostable” and “bio-degradable” products is the rate of degradation. This is similar to the rate of kitchen food waste composting that people do in their backyards. So, your kitchen waste is compostable and amidst that pile reside several millions of microbes that act upon the waste and convert it into compost which one could use as an organic fertilizer.

What does recyclable mean?

In most developed countries, there are several categories in which the local authorities urge their residents to segregate waste. One such example is the city of Kamikatsu in Japan which has followed this process to go near zero waste. Materials like metals, glass, paper, cardboard, electronics can all be recycled i.e., treated and processed to be reused. In an ideal world, all materials could be used, reused and/or recycled before being composted eventually thereby generating zero waste. But, there are some items that cannot be recycled like the single-use plastic. For such items, the best bet is to convert waste-to-energy which provides clean energy by incineration of the waste that can then be used to power the households.

So, the next time you grab a meal to-go and are faced with the box that says compostable, the sauce container that says recyclable and the cutlery that says it’s biodegradable, you know how to act.


Published by Kshitij Tiwari

Roboticist, martial artist, solo traveler, environmentalist

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