Decoding Commonly Used Sustainability Terms

If you find yourself a little baffled by the differences between biodegradable, compostable and other key sustainability terms, this guide will give you a brief overview on some of the key definitions you need to know.

If you're looking to be a more conscious consumer, keep this quick and easy guide on hand for future reference. Happy reading!

Biodegradable

This refers to materials that naturally break down or decompose by living microorganisms such as bacteria. The sooner the material breaks down, the lesser the impact on the environment. 

Examples of biodegradable materials are food waste, paper waste or green waste. On the contrary, materials such as plastic, rubber and paint are non-biodegradable.

Compostable

This refers to materials that break down entirely and act as a fertiliser for your soil. Compostable products are usually made up of organic matter, such as the fruit scraps, vegetable peels or coffee grounds.

Composting typically requires specific conditions for materials to break down, including warm temperatures, nutrients, moisture and plenty of oxygen. However once degraded, compostable materials act as a conditioner and natural pesticide, returning valuable nutrients back to your soil.

Compared to the definition of biodegradable above, imagine biodegradable as the umbrella term. All compostable materials are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable materials are compostable.

Recyclable

This refers to waste materials that can be repurposed into new material or objects. Recycling not only lessens the volume of unused waste sitting in landfill, but also reduces the need to consume fresh raw materials such as wood, silica or precious metals.

An example of recyclable material is aluminium soda cans, which can later be turned into engine parts. Aluminium is highly sought after as a recyclable material as it usually does not contain any additional labelling or stickers, meaning it can often be 100% recycled.

Organic

This refers to the production of food without using any synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, pesticide or genetically modified organisms. 

The increased cost of organic produce is usually a result of the increased labour required to grow the crops. However organic food generally means land has been farmed more efficiently, and livestock has been protected from harmful growth hormones. Eating organic food also means that you are not ingesting potentially harmful chemicals into your body.

Zero Waste or Low Waste

These refer to adopting lifestyle practices that result in zero or low net waste, reducing the likelihood of materials ending up in landfill or polluting natural habitats. 

Zero waste can be challenging to achieve, however effective composting can be an example of such a practice. 

Examples of low waste practices can include participating in the sharing economy (e.g. ride share, house share etc), or investing in reusable household goods such as silicone kitchenware or reusable linen napkins.

Sustainable

The ordinary definition of sustainable means something that is capable of being continued at a certain level. In the context of environmental sustainability, it is generally understood as referring to maintaining a certain standard of living in harmony with the eco-systems within which we live.

The goal is to find a balance in achieving a comfortable lifestyle without damaging or excessively depleting precious natural resources. Examples of a sustainable lifestyle include recycling, consuming less or adopting a plant-based diet.

Reusable cotton mesh produce bags

We hope this cheat sheet has helped you gain a better understanding of some commonly used sustainability terms. Did you learn something new, or do you think we're missing any key terms? Tell us in the comments below.