Biodegradable vs. Recyclable: Which is better?

TLDR: They both have their merits. Read on to understand the difference.

Recycling is a process that generally involves three steps: collecting waste materials, manufacturing the materials into a new product, and then using the new product made from recycled materials. In this way, recycling gives new life to items that otherwise might have gone to the landfill. These days, plastic bottles can be used to make anything from apparel to benches and other sturdy construction items, while paper can be broken back down into paper fibers and remade into new paper products such as brown bags. The more we can recycle, the more we can avoid making new products and introducing new variables into our consumption cycles. 

The challenges of recycling

In recent years, however, it seems like recycling isn’t just as simple as sorting your trash and tossing the recyclables into the blue bin. Experts have begun to point to the lack of accountability when it comes to waste management. You would think that everything is properly sorted once you place it into the blue bin, but the reality is we’re far from it. Only a shocking 9% of all plastics made since the 1950s has been properly recycled, for example. The rest inevitably ends up in landfills and the ocean, where it breaks down into microplastics, causing severe damage to the local marine ecosystems. The World Economic Forum even estimates that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight. 

One of the reasons is that many Western countries tend to ship their plastic waste to low- and middle-income countries to get recycled. In 2018, however, China banned imports of plastic waste, and many countries have since followed suit. These countries that have traditionally dealt with the brunt of the world’s waste, though in the process of industrializing themselves, have taken more thoughtful measures to curb the production of waste to begin with. Kenya, for example, banned plastic bags outright in 2017, and Thailand did the same this year as well. 

Back here in the States and in other Western countries, manufacturers are starting to think about how to stop the life cycle of a product from inevitably ending up in the landfill or the ocean. In recent years, alternatives to recycling have cropped up on the market. You may have noticed that some products are now labeled as biodegradable, and therefore better for the environment. In some cases, the material of the biodegradable product seems very similar to plastic, and other times it may feel quite different, but sometimes they both may seem like plastic. So how are biodegradable products related to recycled products? 

What’s the difference between biodegradable and recyclable?

When something is biodegradable, it means that it breaks down without oxygen and turns into biomass, water, and carbon dioxide within a given amount of time. Sometimes this process is supported by microorganisms, which accelerate the ‘degrading’ or the breaking-down part. When something is recyclable, on the other hand, it means that a product can be sorted and melted down and remade into something new, like park benches, bags, and even activewear. 

Now given what we know about how much actually ends up being recycled, it seems like biodegradable products may be the solution we need for a more environmentally-sound future. But as with recycling, there are some issues in this realm of waste management too. Many biodegradable items can only break down in an industrial composting facility, where it can be treated with high temperatures so that microbes can break it down. Your home composting system wouldn’t cut it, in these cases, because there are some pre-conditions for actually facilitating the product’s decomposition. If these items were taken to the landfill or were to end up in the ocean, like regular plastic, it would take hundreds of years to break down because both of these environments are anaerobic; they don’t have the necessary oxygen to fully decompose a product.  

Bioplastics - a potential solution for the future 

That said, there is still more potential with biodegradable products because of the increased focus on bioplastics. Bioplastics are naturally-occurring polymers that break down in the natural environment over the course of just a couple of months. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), for example, is one of these bioplastics that can really make an impact on the industry because of its ability to be composted in a home composting system. With just a bit of soil, UV light from the sun, and freshwater, it can break down and is thought to be much better for the environment than other biodegradable items and recyclable plastics. While scientists continue to study and document the decomposition process of PHAs, it’s definitely looking like a step in the right direction when it comes to reducing our impact on the environment.

Life. Made Better.

LifeMade is all about making life better through sustainable innovation and product experiences. Every step we take in this direction brings us closer to our vision of a no-compromise future — one where everyone has access to disposable products that are as good for the earth as they are convenient and enjoyable to use. As pioneers in our industry with a century’s worth of experience, it’s our responsibility to harness what we do best — materials innovation and production — for a better world. We’re inspired by the families that enjoy our products and committed to meaningful change.

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