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Know Your Recycling Terms

Recycling SymbolRecycling SymbolDespite its plain, gray cover, the Environotes memo pad still stood out among all the others on the shelf-- stood out because under the brand name, flanked by two green recycling symbols, were the words "Recycled Notebook: 100% Recycled Paper, 30% Post-Consumer Waste." This was clearly the notebook for me.

After I left the store, though, I wasn't so sure. What had I just bought? What was the difference between "recycled paper" and "post-consumer waste"? It's easy to be tricked or bewildered by recycling terms, but a little knowledge can go a long way towards making green choices.

"Recycled," "Post-consumer," and "Pre-consumer" Content

Of these three terms, "recycled content" is the broadest. It can refer to any material in the product that has been diverted from the waste stream-- in other words, stuff that would have otherwise gone to the dump. It's easy to find out how much of a product is recycled. Unless that amount is 100%, the percentage will be on the package.

Post-consumer and pre-consumer content are narrower categories. Post-consumer material is anything that's been used by a consumer and then recycled. In other words, it's what goes into your recycling bin. Pre-consumer content is manufacturing waste, stuff that consumers haven't touched yet. Suppose a company makes pencils, a byproduct of which is wood shavings. Those shavings are pre-consumer material. Both kinds of material are beneficial, but post-consumer content is better. Though reusing manufacturing scraps sounds magnanimous, pre-consumer content is usually recycled anyway, since there is a financial incentive for companies to do it. There's no such incentive for you to recycle, so much more post-consumer material goes to the landfill.

"Biodegradable," "Photodegradable," and "Compostable" Products

Be wary of these labels, as they can be very deceptive. It is true that products labeled "biodegradable" will decompose if left out on the ground, and that "photodegradable" products will break down if exposed to enough sunlight. But remember, this stuff is going to a landfill. Not only are your degradable products probably sealed up in a garbage bag, but when buried in a dump, very little light, air, or moisture will be getting to them, especially because landfills are designed to keep these things out. As a result, degradable products break down at a glacial pace in garbage dumps. 

The "biodegradable" label is more significant when it is found on soaps and cleaning products. These things don't go to a dump, they go down the drain, where they mix with the waste-water stream. There, they break down harmlessly.

The "compostable" label, however, means something very different. Not only will these products decompose if exposed to the elements, they are also safe and beneficial to add to a compost pile. If they are simply sent to a landfill, then obviously they will face the same problems as their other degradable cousins, but in composting this will not be an issue. 

However, be aware that some of these products are only suitable for composting at large facilities. If this is the case, the product should say so along with the "compostable" label. These materials take a very long time to break down in a home compost pile, and will have to be processed at one of these facilities to decompose effectively.

The Recycling Symbol

We all have seen it on jars and cans everwhere, and fortunately, it now means more than it used to. Before the Federal Trade Commission tightened regulations on recycling labels, it could be printed on any product at all, regardless of whether it could actually be recycled or had any recycled content. This isn't the case anymore, but the symbol can still be deceptive if it isn't interpreted correctly. If you see it stamped into the bottom of a container, that does not necessarily mean you can toss it in the recycling bin. Look for the number at the center of the symbol (called an SPI code). This code indicates what kind of plastic the container is made from, and not all codes can be recycled anywhere. Your county's website can fill you in on which codes you can recycle.