Recyclable vs. Biodegradable vs. Compostable

The consumer is demanding packaging that protects our environment. Recyclable, compostable, biodegradable! What’s the difference between each of these terms and what does it mean to you? We know they’re all terms for some kind of renewable source. Reuse or landfill? Maybe they can be reused before they compost and become dirt? Or, maybe we reuse the dirt? Sometimes it can be downright confusing! In this post we’re going to break down the three key terms we hear everyday; recyclable, compostable and biodegradable.


Out of all the sustainability related terms you hear tossed around today recyclable is probably the single most used and distinct of the three. Merriam-Webster defines recyclable as, “to make something new again” which, in its essence, is pretty simple.

The idea of the term recyclable is to find another use for something, whether it’s the same object or its restoring it to its original state and reusing it. This term applies to most materials that you see like metals, plastics, and papers and is sometimes used as the “catch-all” term for a sustainable product.


The term compostable Is on the opposite side of the spectrum from recyclable where rather than reusing something you’re letting it break down. According to Merriam-Webster the term compostable is defined as, “a decayed mixture of plants that is used to improve the soil in a garden.”

The definition itself is pretty self-explanatory, compost is made almost completely of plants of some sort that can ultimately be broken down into something called “Humus” (No, not like the stuff you eat). Humus is then distributed to dirt to add new nutrients to create good soil for growing new plans. Compostable plastic behaves much like other compostable materials in the sense that it needs a catalyst such as heat to break it down into compost.



The final term, biodegradable, is similar to compostable but with a few distinct differences. Miriam-Webster defines biodegradable as, “capable of being slowly destroyed and broken down into very small parts by natural process, bacteria, etc.” While this does sound similar to the definition of compostable, notice the absence of plants.

Biodegradable objects can be much more than plants, it can be papers, boxes, bags, and other items that have all been created with the ability to slowly break down until they’re able to be consumed on a microscopic level. This is one area you’re probably seeing a lot of manufacturers going with their products and overall it’s a pretty successful push.

So, in the battle of recyclable vs. compostable vs. biodegradable you can now correctly, and efficiently, identify each term independently.

Bema Incorporated has the capability to produce the highest quality stand up pouches for countless applications, in the sizes you need, with barrier films that can be combined with lamination to build a pouch structure that meets your required performance. Bema can also guide you through making your pouch as sustainable as possible. Our experts will help you choose the best and most cost effective film composite that meets your structural and shelf life requirements.