Recyclable, Compostable, Biodegradable

Recyclable, Compostable, Biodegradable: What do these mean for our planet?

11 Jan 2021
15 mins
Circular Economy

A standard takeaway coffee cup takes up to 30 years to decompose, while single-use items like cutlery can take up to 1,000 years! Over the past few years, finding a solution to reducing non-recyclable material and alternative landfill methods for waste management has never been more prevalent.

With consumers taking note of the impact their choices have on the environment and demanding change from retailers, there has been a noticeable increase in recyclable, compostable and biodegradable packaging on the market -- but what do they mean?

More importantly, would their incorrect disposal have just as a detrimental effect on the planet as non-recyclable materials?

In this post, we have broken down the terms RECYCLABLE, COMPOSTABLE AND BIODEGRADABLE so you know exactly what they mean and how they can be reused or disposed of through the correct waste stream.
Recyclable infographic


For many of us, recycling has become second nature – cans, milk bottles, cardboard boxes and glass jars. We’re pretty confident with the basics, but what about the more complicated items like juice cartons, yoghurt pots and pizza boxes?

According to a study by Ecover, 37% of us don’t always know if a product’s packaging can be recycled. It’s not always as simple as it appears and with not every packet clearly labelled with recycling instructions, it may seem better to put it in recycling “just in case” rather than send it to landfill. However, if put with other recyclable materials incorrectly, it can actually be a contaminant, jeopardising not only the future of your recycling bin’s contents but all the other recycling collected in your area as well, if other people followed suit.
What makes something recyclable?
Recycling converts used materials into something new and is an effective way of keeping waste out of landfill for longer. Some materials such as plastics, glass, metal, and aluminium can be recycled almost endlessly.

For something to be recycled, there needs to be a way to collect the waste, an effective process to make it into something else and a reliable end-market for that “something else”. As we invest more in recycling infrastructure, we see more materials that were once not unrecyclable now becoming recyclable, either through curbside collections or specialist drop off points.

For recycling to be effective and positively affect the environment, all recyclable materials must make it into the recycling stream. If it is discarded as litter or disposed of as general waste, it is no longer recyclable and is just as harmful to the planet as a single-use item. 
Is there a simple guide to knowing if something is recyclable?
We think it should be so simple to know if something is recyclable or not, which is why we’re members of OPRL, they introduced those easy to understand recycling labels on packaging. We urge all businesses to join and make recycling simple.

However, if you find yourself confronted with some packaging that doesn’t have a clear recycling label, first check with your local council, if you’re still unsure Recycle Now has an extensive resource of how to recycle different materials.


What makes something compostable?
You may have heard the term compost in regards to gardening. Garden waste such as leaves, grass clippings and non-animal food make great compost, but the term can also apply to anything made from organic matter which breaks down in under 12 weeks and enhances soil quality.
Will compostable coffee cups degrade in my home compost?
Coffee cups lined with PLA (a bioplastic made from corn starch) are compostable but are not suitable for home composting. PLA needs processing by an “industrial composting” facility, of which there are a few in the UK. Food packaging labelled as compostable is not usually suitable for home composting. In fact, there is no accepted UK standard for such material for home composting, and most councils will not accept them with garden waste or food waste, so it is always important to check first.
Can compostable packaging go into food or garden waste bins?
Some specific items like food caddy liners may be industrially compostable materials, which can be put into your food waste bin when they bear the EN 13432/14955 logo and if allowed by your local council, but this should always be checked first with them.
Can compostable plastics go in the recycling bin?
No. We may be used to throwing our plastic milk and juice bottles into recycling, but compostable plastics do not belong in the recycling bin. Compostable plastics are designed to be broken down in a different way to recyclable plastics and should be disposed of through organic waste bins, where allowed (see above) or with general waste. If the general waste goes to an energy from waste plant, the material will generate renewable energy.


Biodegradable, like compostable means broken down into smaller pieces by bacteria, fungi or microbes (things naturally occurring in the ground). However, the main differences are there is no time limit on when items can be considered biodegradable. It can take weeks, years or millenniums to break down and still be regarded as biodegradable. Unfortunately, unlike compost, it doesn’t always leave behind enhancing qualities but may damage the environment with harmful oils and gases as it degrades.

For example, biodegradable plastic bags may still take decades to fully break down while releasing harmful CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
Should I avoid everything biodegradable?
It would be hard to avoid everything biodegradable as nearly everything will biodegrade eventually, given enough time. Where possible, opt for reusable items or recycle as much as you can. Everything else, including packaging labelled as compostable (unless suitable for home composting or can be collected by your local authority), and biodegradable should be put into general waste.
What are the differences between biodegradable and bio-based plastics?
Bio-based plastic is a plastic made from plants instead of petroleum, by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to make PLA, what lines many compostable coffee cups. Bio-based plastic eliminates the use of fossil fuels to make plastic.

Biodegradable refers to the end of life process, bio-based plastics do biodegrade, as does everything but if it fails to be disposed of correctly (through general waste or appropriate recycling streams) and becomes litter, it will not decompose quickly in the environment and is just as much as pollutant as oil-derived plastics.

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Author: Biffa

This article was written by one of Biffa's own experts and content writers.