What is the difference between eco-friendly, renewable, sustainable, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable products?

What is the difference between eco-friendly, renewable, sustainable, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable products?

Why discuss these terms together?

People have become increasingly conscious about the products they buy and consume. This shift in consumer behavior has resulted in some makers producing things that cause little to no environmental damage.

Many makers are starting to focus their attention on the materials they use as ingredients, reducing the waste produced during the manufacturing processes, as well as what happens to the product when it reaches the end of its useful life. 

Eco-Maker is a blog for people who have a common interest in making and consuming products that do not harm the environment.

However, like any other field, there are many terms full of industry jargon that most people find intimidating and confusing. So, starting this blog with a post that explains these terms makes sense. Discussing these terms together provides the reader with a chance to compare them and ask questions for clarification. 

What is all the fuss about?

It has taken many decades of effort to make people aware of the environmental impact of their consumption.

We all share this planet and there is an increasing awareness that we don’t own this planet but rather take care of it for future generations while we are here. Since the shift in consumer preference towards products with limited or no environmental impact started, many makers have responded by adapting to this change however many have been engaged in using terms that are designed to confuse people and make it difficult for them to decide which product to choose.

We believe that clarifying terms that are relevant to the environmental impact of making and consuming things is a topic that needs to be discussed openly.


Perhaps the most commonly used term in this context is eco-friendly. The fundamental principle that makes anything eco-friendly is that it is made and used without harming the environment. In a practical sense, it means something that is designed to have little or no lasting damaging effect on the environment from its origin to the end of its useful life. An important point when using this term is the size and scope of the environment being considered when making this claim. For example, making something that is quite useful but only provides value to some part of the population while hurting another part of the population is not eco-friendly. Also, a product cannot be eco-friendly even if it comes from nature but is refined to produce materials that pollute the environment. The term eco-friendly must be defined based on the evaluation of the entire life cycle of a product. 


The basic definition of renewable is something that can be renewed or something that is not depleted when it is used. The term renewable can be used for energy and materials however it is used mostly when referring to energy rather than physical products. For example, renewable resources of energy include energy from the Sun, wind, ocean waves, geothermal and biomass, etc. When it comes to renewable products, anything that is grown in nature is considered renewable. For example, grains such as wheat, rice, corn, leather, and meats from animals, fruits, and vegetables as well as paper, and oxygen supplied by trees. When it comes to renewable products it is important to understand the concept of sustainability because all renewable products are not sustainable either because they come from resources that are diminishing or cause irreversible harm to the environment when produced in large quantities.


Out of all the terms described in this post, perhaps the most misunderstood term is sustainability. It is being used by small and large makers alike and it seems that many of them have their version of sustainability and it has more to do with sustaining what they do already without much consideration for the environment. The simplest definition of sustainability is to avoid the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. In more elaborate terms, what makes a product sustainable is when it can be made without causing harm by removing or depleting resources from the surrounding environment that are used by other living things for their survival.


At a very basic level recyclable means something that can be recycled. The word recycle is a verb that means applying a method or process to a material that has reached the end of its useful life to make it useful again for human consumption either in the same form or in a different form. Recycling has several levels depending on the method or process used to achieve it. 

At a very basic level recycling is exchanging ownership between the current owner and a new owner of the object. For example, the simplest form of recycling or repurposing is buying an item at a garage sale after the current owner decides that the item is no longer useful or desirable to them. Another person who buys it finds it useful or desirable as it is and therefore is willing to pay a price for it. The next level up in recycling is buying an item that is worn down and then refurbishing it to restore its appearance or make it look different so that it is useful and desirable to the new owner. The next level in recycling is to take something such as a plastic bottle and melt the material down to make either a new plastic bottle or another useful product. At each successive level the amount of effort and resources required to transform the object to its new use increases. 


When something is biodegradable, it means that it is made of materials that can be broken down into natural constituents by organisms in the environment. For example, all living animals and humans have bodies designed to be biodegradable and eventually change into nutrients for plants. The length of time it takes may vary from one biodegradable product to another. It depends on the size of the object, its material composition, the heat and pressure it is subjected to as well as the type of naturally occurring organisms that are present to cause biodegradation. For consumers and makers, it is important to note that manufactured biodegradable objects don’t have a shelf life and do not spontaneously biodegrade. They require certain conditions to be met before biodegradation can start. Biodegradable products should not be recycled or put in a landfill because the process to break them down is very different from recycling.


Compostable materials break down completely into non-toxic components that occur in nature such as water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. The time required to compost a product depends on many factors such as the material, size, and composting conditions. Most compostable products require industrial composting methods to complete the process and may not compost at all in a home composting process. The materials used to make these products are all derived from plant-based materials that include fibrous materials like plant stems such as bamboo, and wheat straw and a binder material that contains plant-based starch from wheat, rice, or tapioca. All biodegradable products are not completely compostable. Compostable products should not be recycled or put in a landfill because the process to break them down is very different from recycling.

How to choose?

When choosing what to buy, consumers should read about the product, and how it’s made, and keep the above terms in mind before they decide. When making choices about what to produce, makers should choose between the durability expectations of the customer vs. the long-term environmental impact of making a product that lasts much longer than its useful life. For example, why would you want to make a consumer device like a protective phone case from a material that will last for 1000 plus years when its average useful life is only 2 to 3 years? Questions like this must be asked when defining the scope of products at a very early stage in their development.

CLASPP Phone cases that are made with dual-layer hardshell material are fully recyclable and we offer free shipping to our customers after they have completed their useful life to be recycled properly. CLASPP biodegradable phone cases can be composted at any industrial composter near you. For our customers in the US, there are 4700 composting sites nationwide. Please use the following link to find an industrial composter near you. 


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