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What is the difference between biodegradable and recyclable?

The audience was given a strong message by David Attenborough's Blue Planet II series: we are all accountable for Mother Earth.

The concluding episode of this well-liked BBC programme had some upsetting shots of marine life coping with plastic pollution. This has aided in raising awareness of the harm that human activity is inflicting on the environment, and packaging waste is a contributing factor.

According to recent research, 88% of viewers of the show modified the way they use plastic. Within six months of the series' conclusion, the business noticed an astonishing 800% spike in the number of inquiries about plastic via its Twitter account, demonstrating that consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious.

In light of this, more manufacturers and retailers are searching for environmentally friendly packaging options, and phrases like recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable are frequently used to describe "green" packaging. However, despite the fact that these three terms are frequently combined and used synonymously, they refer to distinct processes.

We've compiled a succinct explanation of each phrase below to help you understand their differences.


Recycling is the act of turning used materials into new ones, preventing them from ending up in a landfill.

However, there are restrictions on how often particular materials can be recycled. Standard plastics and paper, for instance, can often only be recycled a limited number of times before they lose their usability, whereas glass, metal, and aluminium can be recycled indefinitely.

Customers often have no trouble recycling paper, but it might be a little trickier when it comes to plastics. There are seven main kinds of plastic packaging, some of which are frequently recycled and others which are hardly ever.

Two-thirds of British consumers recycle as frequently as they can, according to a study by the eco-cleaning goods company Ecover, yet up to 37% confess they don't always know if a product's packaging can be recycled or not.

Manufacturers and retailers can aid consumers by clearly stating recycling information on their packaging. Another option to recycle and extend the life of products is to switch to reusable packagings, such as boxes or mailing bags that may be used for returns and exchanges.


When something is biodegradable, it indicates that, under specific circumstances, microbes like bacteria and fungi can naturally break it down (temperature, humidity, etc.). However, because it does not specify the amount of time required for products to break down, the phrase itself is highly ambiguous.

Although many items degrade organically over time and are therefore theoretically biodegradable, some may take decades. Even organic waste, like banana skin, might take two years to decompose after being discarded.

Similar to food packaging, packaging materials like biodegradable plastic bags need particular conditions to degrade correctly and can release damaging greenhouse gases when left to break down in a landfill.

They decompose into smaller pieces of plastic that can take some time to dissolve because they are made of plastic. Consequently, even when decomposition occurs naturally, it can still be bad for the ecosystem.

However, compared to conventional plastics, which may take hundreds of years to degrade, biodegradable plastics break down far more quickly. They appear to be a better environmental option as a result.


Products that can be composted are made of natural components like starch and break down completely into "compost" without leaving behind any hazardous residue. Products must adhere to strict specifications outlined in The European Standard EN 13432 in order to be labelled as compostable.

Compostable products are not suited for home composting unless the product has been certified as Home Compostable. Composting is a controlled process that typically takes place in an industrial composting plant. Therefore, it's crucial to read the label to ensure the product is thrown away appropriately.

The recycling process can be contaminated if compostable and biodegradable plastics are put into a regular recycling bin because they are not currently recyclable. However, efforts are being made to develop compostable and recyclable solutions thanks to technological advancements.


A fourth type, known as bio-plastics, is also present. They are seen as being more environmentally friendly because they are created from components that may be found in the ocean or on plants (like corn and sugarcane).

This is because, compared to polymers made from petroleum, their production uses fewer fossil fuels and produces fewer greenhouse gases. In order to promote material "recycling," some bioplastics are also produced using leftover agricultural leftovers, including potato peelings.

However, not all bioplastics are biodegradable, despite what their name might imply. A bioplastic made of polylactic acid (PLA) is biodegradable, whereas a bioplastic made of polyethene terephthalate (PET) is not. However, it is recyclable. Unsurprisingly, this leads to confusion and results in many bioplastics being improperly disposed of.

There is no one right answer to the question of which type of packaging—compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable—is best for the environment. All of these options have advantages and drawbacks of their own, but they represent a step toward thinking about more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives.

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