Recyclable, Compostable, Biodegradable

It’s a subject to stir the emotions…try raising it at the dinner table if the conversation lapses! The challenges of recycling materials and if compostable or biodegradable materials reduce environmental impact. The media is awash with scientists’ predictions about the end game in climate change. There is a general consensus to make what changes we can towards a sustainable future. Western governments have largely got onboard. As a result, legislation and taxation is changing in favour of the environment.

Measures in the UK include the carrier bag tax and provision to recycle more kerbside collections. The Packaging Waste Recovery notes system and mandatory separation of recyclables are imposed on businesses. A new plastic packaging tax is also on the horizon. The elephant in the room is certainly single-use plastics and organisations are looking for ways to replace them. So let’s see if we can understand what’s best and the opportunities for business to make a positive impact.

Recycled, Compostable or Biodegradable?

It is important that we understand the meanings of the different terms. In the context of the afterlife of products –  we can make informed choices for our lives and businesses.

What is recycling?

“Recovery and reprocessing of waste materials for use in new products.”

By making the decision to purchase recycled products, we’re reducing our reliance on finite sources of raw materials. This means  we could reduce volumes sent to landfill. This is the first step in closing the loop of sustainability. If there is insufficient call for recycling, bad things can happen when outside our control. This includes the notorious single use plastics that we traditionally export for reprocessing.

In the UK there’s a lot of room to improve our overall recycling rates. Wales is in the lead at 54.1%, followed by N Ireland. Scotland next and then England at only 44.7%. Still someway to go to meet the 2020 EU target for the UK to recycle at least 50% of domestic waste. Recycling rates have not varied by more than the odd percentage point since 2013 and overall intake has dropped. So despite the greater interest in the subject, are we putting more effort into the other alternatives? We are, after all, getting through millions (or is it billions?) fewer single use carrier bags.

Recycling of plastic

As we’ve said, the big subject is plastics, so we’ll go there first!

These days, the recycling of plastics is a well-established process. Computerised identification and segregation of most plastics from post-consumer waste (PCW) is carried out on high-speed conveyors. These require minimal human assistance. However, despite great technical advances, the more recent lookalike bioplastic products like PLA (Polylactic Acid) derived from plant sources are not detected by machine.  Once volumes of PLA increase, then better identification and recycling can be made viable.

Moulded plastic items are categorized into 7 numerical types to guide the consumer as to what can be recycled and where. Popular examples include No.1 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) fizzy drinks bottles and polyester strapping in packaging. No.4 is the Low Density Polythene (LDPE) found in Bags for Life, freezer food bags etc. It is estimated that some popular plastics can be recycled between 7-9 times although figures vary according to the type of material.

The positive side to plastic

Industrial waste is also segregated by law in the UK, so all-told a lot less ends up in landfill than did even a few years ago.

PET plastic bottles might end up as clothing and auto components. This is referred to as downcycling. PET strapping can be remade time and again. LDPE can be recycled for use as black rubbish sacks, agricultural film or for composite decking! So far, so good. What could possibly go wrong? Well, in a word… lots!  We don’t have enough use for recycled plastic nationally. We don’t have the capacity to process all the plastic waste we produce. The upshot is that huge volumes are exported to countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Poland, and Indonesia for reprocessing.

Sadly, we have all seen images of rejected plastic waste in the sea, on beaches and in dumps abroad. This all  undermines the claims that Europe recycles increasing amounts of plastic. Blame is said to largely rest with certain UK recyclers being negligent and allowing unsuitable waste to contaminate good plastics.

Recycling of paper


Adding up the recycling numbers

The highest recycling rates have been achieved in the waste sector are for paper and cardboard (79% in 2017).This is slightly ahead of metal and glass. Whereas these latter two are infinitely recyclable, the process for recycling paper is limiting. This is because the wetted paper mass must be chopped to create a pulp. This destroys long fibres making recycled paper weak and prone to tearing. This means a proportion of virgin pulp must be added according to its intended use.

It’s estimated that paper can be recycled up to 7 times. A significant proportion of recycled paper is used for the making of the Test layer in corrugated outer cartons [see  How much do printed cartons cost ] and corrugated paper rolls. Adding recycled paper to make new paper reduces the need for wood, and reduces the energy required by a third. This all helps to free-up space in landfill for items that cannot be recycled.

The difference between Compostable and Biodegradable

Even dictionary definitions vary, and you will find conflicting slants on similar data according to the writer’s viewpoint.

What is compostable?

“Capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution.”

“Something that is compostable can be used as compost when it decays:”

These terms are often used interchangeably in spite of there being differences in origin and outcome.  To comply with the European standard EN13432, ‘Compostable’ requires that a bioplastic product should break down by 90% into >2mm pieces within 84 days. This would be in an industrial composting facility by means of heat, moisture, fungi and other living organisms at an average C60 degrees, releasing CO2 and water and leaving biomass.

PLA will only start to decompose after 180 days, so it needs much longer cycles at 60 degrees. Compostable plastic products will contaminate recycling chains, except in proportions below 3%. If suitable industrial facilities aren’t available, they will to go to land fill or incineration.

The definition of biodegradable

“Capable of disintegrating into natural elements in a compost environment, leaving no toxicity in the soil”

Items that are termed ‘home compostable’ are in category of their own and have no internationally recognised specification. They should biodegrade within a time of 6-12 months at an average C30 degrees into beneficial organic components with no toxicity. These should not be sent to landfill because some may produce methane and other gases. Neither should they be added to any recycling because of contamination.

Is Biodegradable the answer?

Given that most paper and plastic materials will degrade over a period of time (albeit some needing hundreds of years!) these are therefore quite unsuited to composting. This results in the term being open to abuse. In the case of conventional, fossil-derived plastics, the degrading additive may even be toxic and therefore what is left in the soil may not be organic or beneficial.  Microplastic particle residue is a topical subject. These enter the soil, finding their way into rivers and oceans, potentially entering the food chain via marine life.

Biodegradable products should not be added to the recycling chain because of the risk of contamination. The result of contamination means sending more to landfill. Uncertified bioplastics should not be added to industrial (or home) composting facilities. Until they are in the right environment, the degrading process will not even begin.


Adding to the confusion between Biodegradable and Compostable, we’re seeing more Bioplastics. These come with certain environmental credentials.  Being derived from renewable plant resources (sugar cane, maize, wheat, cassava, soya) rather than fossil fuel, they require over 60% less energy in manufacture and produce less CO2. The growing of crops for purposes other than food when there are 800 million persons undernourished globally raises other concerns. By increasing the demand for such crops, it raises world commodity prices, thus pushing more persons into food poverty.

Bioplastics are not by definition compostable or biodegradable, so should not be added to either waste stream without clear guidance. We’ve touched on the subject of PLA earlier in the article under the heading of Recycling Plastics. Until there are larger volumes of PLA products that justify their own special re-processing or degrading facilities, as in Germany, then they will continue to go to landfill. Despite being nominally biodegradable (#7) the PLA plastic appears to take too long to degrade in commercial composting facilities that work to specific cycles. A small quantity of PLA in the recycling chain may be tolerated (>3%) and the potential is there to follow Germany’s example in closing this loop.

What’s next for recycling and reducing?

Whilst there may be impatience from certain quarters to make the planet plastic-free, there have been huge advances made over the years to re-use, reduce and recycle. This is a change from the early days of single-use plastic where no serious attention was given to recycling post-consumer waste. Serious efforts have been made to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging by employing performance-enhancing additives. For example, whole pallets can now be efficiently secured with high performance pallet wrap which means using up to 40% less. Industrial processes that were once shunned for being highly polluting such as de-inking, bleaching and re-pulping of waste paper are now refined in modern plants. This means that this waste is no longer destroying natural life.

Some 5 billion cartons consisting of 75% recycled content manufactured annually in the UK help to create a market for recycled paper. We will have most likely achieved the 2030 target of 85% recycling already, with fewer road miles and less C02 too. It has been estimated that there are 25% more trees growing in the UK now than in the middle of the last century thanks to huge replanting schemes.

What customers expect

The story of plastic has more to be told. Innovation continues to help replace or reduce the amounts that are needed to carry out the same functions. Bioplastics are at an early stage too, with degrading and recycling likely to become more mainstream in the near future. There’s a way to go in terms of using more recycled plastics, but the trend’s going the right way. Companies  and multinationals like Proctor and Gamble willing to get involved will ensure success.

There is no doubt that it is the will of the people to pursue environmental goals in our households. And for organisations to accept corporate responsibility in their policies and practices. Retailers willing to embrace change and respond to customers’ increasing demand for transparency and sustainable practices will win the day from the packaging they choose to other carbon footprint reduction methods.

These will become the drivers for change as we all make informed buying choices in our daily lives and our businesses.

If you would like to find out more about how you can reduce environmental impact with the products you use in your business, drop us a line below.

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