What’s the Difference? – Compostable vs. Biodegradable vs. Recyclable

When it comes to the environment, world opinion always teeters between half-empty and half-full.  Businesses see the opportunity with the half-full crowd and are churning out mountains of what they claim are “eco-friendly” products.

The result is a new term: “Green-Washing”, which refers to when consumers are misled by the true environmental benefits of products or the actions of a company.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has stepped in to assist consumers by publishing “Green Guides” to clarify advertising claims and define green terms.  The three definitions the Green Guides take aim at are three of the most abused terms in the green world:  Biodegradable, Compostable and Recyclable.


According to the FTC’s Green Guides, a product is biodegradable as long as it “will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.”   In other words, the item will continue to disintegrate into small pieces until micro-organisms consume it.

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For an item to be marked compostable, the Green Guide states there must be scientific evidence that the materials in the item break down, or become part of, usable compost in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting facility or home compost pile.

The main difference between biodegradable and compostable is the latter breaks down into “humus,” which provides valuable nutrients to the soil.  Biodegradable products just return to nature, disintegrating or disappearing completely.  This disintegration could take a week or years – another difference with compostable, where items must break down in a “timely” fashion i.e., one-to-four months.  (The FTC states biodegradable items have “reasonably short period of time” to break down, which hasn’t been clarified.)

Finally, compostable items must completely break down and not release any metals or toxins into the compost.  Biodegradable products can leave metal residue in their return to nature.


The FTC’s Green Guide states that the claim of a recyclable product is valid as long as “it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream … for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.”

This definition is much less confusing to the public – recyclable products can be turned into something new.  Most plastics, glass, cardboard and metals are recyclable, as long as their turned into the proper facility.

For more information and examples of what’s acceptable regarding these three green terms, check out the FTC’s Green Guides at: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/10/greenguides.pdf


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