Clearing Up Confusion about “Green” and “Sustainable” Terms

Clearing Up Confusion about “Green” and “Sustainable” Terms

So often sustainable-related terms are confused or used interchangeably when they hold separate definitions. As a sustainability-centric company, we are passionate about promoting clear, accurate information, and using these terms properly. This article aims to guide business owners and confused consumers on why and how to use these terms properly. Let’s start addressing the common questions we receive: the differences between common green terms.


Are there any differences between biodegradable and compostable?

Actually, yes, there is. The two are often used incorrectly because terms can be somewhat complex to unravel. There are a lot of layers to each term that makes it complicated to break down. To keep things simple, compostable material consists of biodegradable material, but not all biodegradable material is compostable. 


What is the definition of biodegradable?

Biodegradability refers to the process material takes in breaking down within the environment. Biodegradable material encompasses a large range of materials, from plastic (not easily broken down) to bamboo (very easy to break down). Every object is eventually biodegradable, some materials take longer to break down than others. But, to be biodegradable, it only matters that the material eventually breaks down.


So what’s the confusion about biodegradable?

Okay, buckle up, because as varied as the topic is, the perception of it is even more varied. This is a complicated question to answer. Since most waste will eventually biodegrade, anything can be technically considered as “biodegradable”. Is this where the confusion stems from? The dangerous thinking behind this is that everything will eventually break down without intervention or with little time. 


Certain waste, like diapers, need hundreds of years to break down. Let that sink in: if the diapers you wore as a baby are in landfills they will outlive you! That’s why waste like that needs extra assistance to reach that point, but that comes with its own issues to the environment. Material that does not break down naturally does not “biodegrade”. This is why not all biodegradable material is considered compostable. 


What is the definition of compostable?

Compostable material is made from what was once living, but has a stricter definition than biodegradable. In other words, what makes something compostable falls under a stricter criteria. There are significantly less compostable materials than biodegradable kinds. That’s because some materials are NOT biodegradable, but they are compostable. 


How can something be compostable but not biodegradable?

More often than not, compostable materials were derived from materials once living. But, the true meaning behind compost is that it breaks down quickly in a controlled (compostable) environment. Not all varieties of biodegradable plastics, for example, can be broken down under those conditions. That means certain conditions for the material have to be met for it to break down efficiently. Compost is the byproduct of the process. Ideally, compost is reused in some way, either to feed nutrients back into the environment, or to be recycled in another form. These are the main differences between the two. 

Is zero waste the same thing as eco friendly living?

Unlike the definitions of compostable and biodegradable, eco friendly living is an extremely vague, broad lifestyle that has no specific criteria. The definition of eco friendly is very vague. It is an umbrella term that could mean anything that doesn’t impact the environment. The contradiction is that everything affects the environment, so where do you draw the line? 


And, again, what standards make eco friendly.. Eco friendly? Well, it’s safe to say that eco friendly lifestyles are usually centered around recycling and using disposables that decay quickly, without much damage to the environment. This could be palm leaf plates, paper straws, or bagasse containers.The term can refer to a lot more things. 


It is important to note, however, that zero waste and eco friendly are two very different terms!


What is zero waste and how is it different from eco friendly?

Zero waste can be considered “eco friendly” living, but the actual meaning of zero waste living is more distinct and has a strict standard. Zero waste living attempts to minimize all waste through 3 “R’s”. Refuse, reduce, and reuse (for some, recycle, and rot are a part of this process). Ultimately, the goal is to live environmentally (or eco) friendly, reducing as much of an impact on the environment as possible.



The first R in zero waste living is only consuming what you need. Refuse what you don’t need. It requires a lot of self discipline and thought, but it is one of the most rewarding when it’s achieved. This R can be as simple as refusing to buy plastic water bottles in favor of stainless steel water bottles that can be… you guessed it… reused.



You can reuse stainless steel water bottles, of course, but that’s not the only thing you can do. Maybe instead of buying paper towels in bulk, you can simply use cloth towels and dry clean them when you’re done. That empty hand soap bottle by the sink? Don’t throw it out, buy hand soap in bulk and reuse the bottle! 



This one is the most obvious, but the hardest (especially to me!). It involves freeing space by giving up what you don’t need. I’m a tad bit of a hoarder, so the idea of selling or donating old clothes can sometimes cause me some hesitation, but it is something I feel better about once I do it. If you’re like me and not ready to give away anything that you might have an emotional attachment to, you could always start small. I’m sure you have pens laying around that you don’t need. Consider gifting them or recycling them!


What’s next?

Zero waste living, or eco friendly living, is a commitment that takes some work. But treating the earth with respect is important, we only get one, after all! Even if every other person practiced living sustainability in some part, it would benefit the environment greatly. It takes some conditioning and a willingness to change, but it’s very possible. Understanding the differences and being armed with knowledge can definitely help, especially in this day and age!


Same goes for businesses, too! If you’re a business looking to be more sustainable, you can also adopt these principles wherever possible. One suggestion, however, if you plan on promoting your company as “eco friendly”  in any of your marketing, you’ll want to be specific and transparent. For example, if you’re a restaurant and want to say you use eco friendly take out packaging, you might want to be direct about what it is that is eco friendly. Are you using paper packaging? Bagasse? These are all very important key things that zero waste lifestylers want to know. 


Let’s face it: sustainability and enriching the environment can be an intimidating topic, and there are still so many problems we’re still discovering and solving. Let’s avoid adding more confusion to an already confusing topic.