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Recycling vs. Composting: What’s the Difference?

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Recycling versus composting. While it’s not exactly a competition, these terms are often used in the same sentence to highlight an item’s eco-friendly characteristics. As such, it’s helpful to know what they each mean, what they have in common (hint: very little), and where they differ. That way, we know what to do when we’re no longer in need of an item or packaging. This is especially important when an item can be recycled or composted. Here it really does become a recycling versus composting situation, and when that happens, most of the time the item should be recycled. Here’s why.

Recycling means that an item is reclaimed and then melted or broken down into raw materials to be manufactured into a new item. There are two important sub categories within recycling, post-consumer and post-industrial. 

  • Post consumer means that an item is recycled, sorted and sent to a reclaimer after it has been used. 

  • Post industrial means that the scrap that has been generated from the manufacturing process is melted down to be put back into the manufacturing process. 

The other important distinction to make within recycling is item-to-item recycling versus downcycling. 

  • Item-to-item recycling means that something is recycled back into itself or something very close. For example, a plastic bottle that is recycled back into a plastic bottle. 

  • Downcycling means that an item has been made a completely different, often durable good. For example, a milk jug that is recycled into composite lumber. 

Composting is a little simpler. It means that the item is put into a compost bin or facility, allowing the item to break down into compost. The resulting compost product can be used in a variety of ways. Composting can be done at the consumer level or the industrial level. High quality compost is teeming with biodiversity and nutrients and can go onto agricultural land or your backyard garden. Lower quality compost (the kind that often comes out of industrial composting facilities) is typically sold to construction sites and similar operations. 

These basic definitions do much to remind us that recycling and composting both deal with the same thing: the “end of life” of objects. It is essential that conscious consumers don’t simply think about this as an “end of life” but instead, give thought to the new life that these scenarios represent and evaluate which new life is optimal in a given situation. 

Benefits of Recycling

  • Conserve and respect raw materials and natural resources: Trees have already been cut down to make paper. Corn has already been grown to make bioplastic. Aluminum has already been extracted to make a soda can. Natural gas has already been extracted to make plastic. Recycling lets you get more out of it.   

  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water consumption: For most materials, one of the biggest environmental impacts is the process of converting the raw goods into the actual material (i.e. converting trees into wood or smelting aluminum from bauxite). By recycling and buying recycled goods, you eliminate the need for this step , resulting in more efficient production, reducing environmental impact.

  • Minimize the amount of trash we send to the landfill: Landfills can emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also often leach into groundwater, contaminating water supplies. They are a terrible way to use land if we can avoid it, and recycling more means less waste gets sent to them.

Benefits of Composting

  • Decompose organic / natural items: When an organic item - such as food scraps, leaves or grass - is composted, it decomposes into a biodiverse soil amendment. The resulting compost is great for improving the moisture retention of the soil in your garden, or even at a bigger scale in agricultural projects.

  • Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers: When soil needs less chemical fertilizer, that means less fertilizer runoff ends up in waterways, which can wreak havoc on downstream ecosystems.

  • Minimize the amount of trash we send to the landfill: Like recycling, composting reduces the amount of waste that gets sent to the landfill. 

What SHOULD I Recycle?

First of all- anything that you can recycle. If your curbside recycling program accepts it, recycle it (cans, glass, paper, boxes, plastic bottles etc). It’s important however, to pay attention to each item’s instructions - does your recycler want the item cleaned? Should you keep lids on or remove them? Crush them, break them down or keep them “as is”? Every MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) has different equipment and processes, so each one can have slightly or drastically different requirements. 

Typical ecommerce packaging components like shipping boxes, paper mailers, and packaging paper should also be recycled. The ecommerce packaging with plastic in it can often be recycled as well: look for plastic film, polymailer, and bubble mailer dropoffs at your local grocery store.

What SHOULD I Compost?

Food scraps, yard scraps, packaging that is soiled or has food residue, such as an oil stained pizza box, and anything else for which composting is the only non-landfill end of life strategy.  

In general, if something can be recycled or composted, recycle it. For example, a cardboard box, piece of paper, or a paper mailer - these are technically compostable and recyclable. It’s almost always better to recycle them. Why? Two important reasons.

Shorter lifecycle: First, when an item is recycled, it can quickly and with fewer resources, be turned back into something else. When something is composted, it turns into soil or soil amendment and then takes extensive resources and time to become an item again. 

Recycling is friendlier to contamination: Second, most items that can be recycled and composted bring some level of contamination to compost. When a piece of paper, newspaper, a cardboard box, etc has ink, adhesives and other contaminants, those contaminants are challenging and sometimes impossible to sift out of a compost pile. They therefore eventually end up in whatever the compost is used for. While industrial composters may accept these items, if they receive too much of it, over time, it will significantly degrade the quality of their output, making it more difficult for them to sell their output (and making their output less optimal for the planet). On the other hand, composted leaves, food and other organic matter don’t have synthetic additives and when they are composted properly, result in high quality compost that significantly enhances the land and soil it is added to. 

COMPOST VERSUS RECYCLE VERSUS LANDFILL CHART

A quick cheat sheet to help you best dispose of common packaging items. Always check with your local waste management provider first though, as their capabilities, needs and requirements can differ. 

Compost

Recycle

Landfill

  • PLA / BPAT mailers (be sure to take out as much contamination as you can, such as adhesives, though it can be impossible to take out things like inks.)
  • Paper towels
  • Tissue paper
  • Soiled pizza boxes
  • Paper and boxes that are directly soiled with food that can be shaken of
  • Certified compostable bioplastics
  • Paper mailers
  • Shipping boxes and all boxes and cartons with no food contamination
  • Poly Mailers
  • Paper / cardstock
  • Cardstock / cardboard food packaging
  • Aluminium
  • Glass
  • Newspaper
  • Packaging made with two materials that are stuck together, such as:
  • Paper / poly bubble mailers
  • Coffee cups (unless you live in a rare community whose MRF can accept plastic lined coffee cups!)

For more on recycling and composting, check out our takes on the importance of recycling, tips for composting, and the important dichotomy between compostable and biodegradable. EcoEnclose is dedicated to making the planet a better place, one sustainable mailer at a time.