Recyclable, Biodegradable, Compostable: Which is best?

By Kristyn Jones, Account Executive

Today more than ever, sustainability seems to be on everyone’s minds. Subject matter experts around the world are coming together to discuss creating a “more sustainable future.” But what does sustainability mean in the manufacturing space? Where do recyclability, biodegradability, and compost-ability fit into the puzzle? Is one better than the other?

The short answer to this question is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to sustainability in manufacturing. In order to better understand which is best for your application in consumer products, let’s take a look at what recyclability, biodegradability, and compost-ability mean.


If something is recyclable, it means that the item can be collected, reprocessed, and reused in manufacturing to make a new item.


If something is biodegradable, it means that the item can break down naturally into organic material quicker than non-biodegradable materials, but in an undefined time window.


If something is compostable, it means that the item will break down to biomass at the same rate as other organic materials, such as plants. Contrary to biodegradable items, compostable materials leave no residue after about 90 days.

All of these end-of-life options are more earth friendly, but you might be wondering which of these options is the best for you. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:

Recyclable Pros
  • Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators
  • Aids in reducing the microplastics in the environment
  • Easy to participate; curbside recycling available and lots of public recycling receptacles
  • Glass and metal can be recycled infinitely
  • Saves energy
  • Reduces pollution
Biodegradable Pros
  • Breaks down faster than non-biodegradable materials
  • Often dissolves in marine environments
  • Breaks down with exposure to oxygen and light if loose in the environment
  • No human intervention needed; micro-organisms do all the work
  • No chemicals needed for decomposition
Compostable Pros
  • Compostable items usually break down within 90 days
  • Leaves no distinguishable visible or toxic residue
  • The “end” products actually provide nutrition for the soil
  • Least environmental impact overall
Recyclable Cons
  • Not all recycled material gets purchased; a majority goes to the landfill anyways
  • Paper and plastic can only be recycled a handful of times
  • Lack of global harmonization of recycling symbols
  • Some materials are costly to recycle, and are not reprocessed as a result
Biodegradable Cons
  • The conditions needed for biodegradation might not be achieved in a landfill
  • There is no standard to identify what is and isn’t considered biodegradable
  • If biodegradable materials are accidentally recycled, they contaminate the waste stream
Compostable Cons
  • Requires a lot of work for the consumer to compost at home, OR
  • Requires municipal or industrial composting facilities that are not yet available in the U.S.
  • Compostable products lose their value entirely if they end up in a landfill

As you can see, there are many positive and negative attributes for each.

At Insight, we strive to make products responsibly and with the planet in mind.

  • We have identified that compostable products are best for the environment, but since industrial composting is not widely available, this solution is ahead of its time.
  • Additionally, we anticipate that many consumers would mistakenly recycle or discard a biodegradable product in curbside recycling and trash receptacles. Because of this, biodegradable products do not seem to be the best solution for sustainability as they contaminate the recycling stream and do not biodegrade in a landfill that is devoid of light and oxygen.
  • As such, manufacturing recyclable products is our best option for sustainability (as of today). We will continue to recommend manufacturing with recyclable plastics, specifically those that are easy to recycle like PET & HDPE.

Even though there is no clear solution for sustainable manufacturing, it is up to everyone to make a difference.

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