Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Waste, Defined

After outlining bioplastics last week, we thought it would be helpful to actually define the terms recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable - words that we know, but whose meanings started to blur amidst all the esoteric new picnic products. So, for those of you, like us, who want to better understand a product's potential lifecycle, here are some working definitions:

Recyclable - These products can be collected and reprocessed into something new. In other words, they are useful. Throwing them in the trash is a waste of resources and landfill space. It's also helpful to remember that some recyclables are biodegradable and some aren't.

Biodegradable - These products can break down into biomass, carbon dioxide, and water over a period of time in a natural environment. And, according to The Green Office website, they "pose no toxic threat when disposed of through conventional waste streams". KEY: "Products that are labeled as 'biodegradable' can be disposed of in your garbage. However it is important to remember that landfills lack the microorganisms and oxygen required for waste to biodegrade in a timely manner, so you should still try to minimize the amount of wasted material."

Compostable - These are essentially the same as biodegradable materials, with one added benefit: when they break down, they release much-needed nutrients into the soil to help fertilize the land. But here's the important part: "products that are labeled 'compostable' must enter an industrial composting facility in order for it to fully degrade into organic matter. If your city doesn't provide industrial composting, you can dispose of compostable products in your backyard or home composter, but they will take longer to biodegrade. If you do not have access to a compost facility or a home composter, dispose of the compostables in the garbage. This option should be your last resort as waste does not easily biodegrade in landfills. Remember: do not put compostables into your recycling! They are not recyclable and will contaminate the recycling process."

We also recommend checking out a helpful post on Treehugger and one on Wild Green Yonder. They were our main sources for these definitions, and go into further elaboration if you'd like more info.

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