Explaining Compostable, Biodegradable and Recyclable

What is the difference between compostable, biodegradable and recyclable

It’s a conundrum for anyone working in the food industry. More and more customers want their food to go, which requires additional packaging. At the same time, they are demanding businesses reduce the amount of packaging waste they produce. 

Meanwhile, businesses are also dealing with confusing municipal rules around recycling and composting, as well as labour and supply-chain issues that make just getting a dish into a clamshell something of a feat, let alone ensuring that the container won’t destroy the planet. 

It seems that making the switch to biodegradable and/or compostable materials is the best way to solve the problem and make everyone happy. But is it really? Well, it depends – so let’s try break things down a bit. Here’s what you need to know about containers that are recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. 

What does recyclable mean? 

Back in the 1960s, when our wasteful ways began catching up with the planet, environmentalists came up with the concept of the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The COVID-19 pandemic has put waste to the idea of “Reduce”—between all that PPE and takeout, we’re producing more garbage than ever—and the global spread of a highly contagious disease has made “Reuse” a bit of an uncomfortable concept. 

But since 1981, when Kitchener, Ontario, became the first city in the world to introduce a curbside recycling program back, recycling has become a way of life for most of us. 

Recycling is the process of converting used materials into something new and keeping them out of the landfill for a little longer. Glass, paper, metal, plastic, textiles and electronics can all be recycled. Of those, plastic is the trickiest. 

Many types of plastic are recyclable; others are not. Some facilities accept some plastics and not others. And it’s not always clear which is which. Pro tip—look on the bottom of the container for the recycling code, a number surrounded by three arrows. No. 1 (polyethylene/PET) and 5 (polypropylene/PP) are typically accepted for recycling. No. 6 (polystyrene/PS) typically is not. 

Perhaps all this confusion is why 91 per cent of all plastics are just thrown away. When you consider that we’ve created 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic since 1950, that’s a whole lot of bags, straws, coffee cups and clamshells littering the planet. 

Clearer information on how to recycle plastic packaging might encourage customers to actually do so. 

Types of materials to recycle

What does biodegradable mean?

Although the words “compostable” and “biodegradable” are often used interchangeably, they aren’t quite the same thing. 

Yes, biodegradable means that, with the help of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, a product such as food, plant material, fabric or paper will eventually break down and turn into carbon dioxide, water and biomass. The problem is there’s no time limit on that. Even plastic and heavy metals will eventually break down, given enough time. 

As a result, the term is almost meaningless and is often misused, sometimes deliberately. Indeed, it is so misleading it has been banned in some jurisdictions, such as California. 

As with everything else, it seems, the problem is with plastics. Regular plastic can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Biodegradable plastic decomposes much faster, but needs oxygen to decompose, so it can’t break down fully in a landfill, where there is little oxygen available. Most “biodegradable” plastics require a special facility to process them. They aren’t recyclable either, and can contaminate other plastics, sending them straight to the landfill. 

Keep in mind: While all compostable materials are biodegradable, not all biodegradable materials are compostable. 

Food biodegrading

What does compostable mean?

Compostable materials break down within a year and in as little as 90 days, thanks to the hard work of millions of tiny microbes that transform it into an earth-like organic material called humus, which makes a dandy fertilizer. 

Compostable products are made from natural materials. Food waste, of course, is compostable, and curbside pickup has diverted countless tonnes of potato peels, mouldy bread and dinner scraps from the landfill. Many paper bags and boxes are compostable, too, and so are containers made from plant fibres such as sugarcane, bamboo or wheat straw or cutlery made from corn or potato starch. 

Compostable plastics are an exciting step up from biodegradable ones as they contain no petroleum products and emit fewer greenhouse gases in their production. But you still have to check with your local municipality to see if it will accept the product you are considering using—and nothing will compost properly if you don’t have the right conditions. 

Composting works best when the items have access to oxygen and are regularly being turned over. A landfill’s environment is basically the opposite of that—it’s both static and anaerobic—so compostable products should not be thrown in the trash. Aside from paper, compostable products are also not recyclable and can contaminate materials that are. 

If you’re using compostable products for takeout items, inform your customers so they can dispose of the containers properly. 

Sign for compost facility

The importance of consumer education about recycling, composting and biodegradability

The federal government is set to ban single-use plastic bags, straws, cutlery and other items. That makes this not just a philosophical issue, but an urgent business one. 

You have to choose the best option for your business and your community. Compostable containers, with their low impacts, are the best for the planet, but only if you have a facility that can process them. Recyclable materials are a good solution, too, but only if people bother to clean, sort and place them in the right bins. Biodegradable products are better than those destined for the landfill, but require proper sorting and handling. 

All require more education for customers and employees alike, and it falls to business owners to explain how best to dispose of their packaging. 

When it comes to recyclable vs. biodegradable vs. compostable materials, there is no perfect answer, but every effort to be eco-friendly is better than none. 

Written by Joanne Sasvari

ChefEquipment.com only carries takeout and delivery containers that are recyclable, compostable or biodegradable. 

Check out our Takeout Container collection.

Eco friendly takeout packaging