Let's talk 'green' language

Let's talk 'green' language

When it comes to ‘sustainable words’, there’s a lot of different language out there. Particularly to consumers, it can seem like the terms are used interchangeably, but recyclable, compostable and biodegradable have very specific, technical meanings.

‘Sustainable language’ is a complicated topic for a lot of different reasons. Different geographies and different bodies can have different standards when it comes to each term – the US and Europe can vary significantly, for example. The result is that each word can mean different things in different countries.

For consumers, there’s also confusion about each term. ‘Dictionary’ descriptions of each word (i.e. a less precise and less technical explanation) can make sustainability seem simpler than it is – it’s often not clear that certain standards have to be met for a product to be officially categorized in each term.

The Collins English Dictionary, for example, defines recyclability as

‘…waste or materials that can be processed and used again.’

The result is its easy for consumers to assume lots of materials are recyclable, when in fact, they material itself doesn’t meet minimum standards to be recyclable.

Green forrest


Here at AR Metallizing, we always meet scientific parameters to describe the sustainability of our products – this is especially important for us when we consider recyclability. 

Here’s a quick overview of each term, what they mean, along with sources.


The characteristic of a product, packaging, or associated component that can be diverted from a waste stream through available processes and programmes and can be collected, processed, and returned to use in the form of raw materials or products.

Source: ISO 14021, definition 7.7.1


Compostability is a property of a packaging to be biodegraded in a composting process. To claim compostability it must have been demonstrated that a packaging can be biodegraded and disintegrated in a composting system (as can be shown by standard test methods) and completes its biodegradation during the end-use of the compost. The compost must meet the relevant quality criteria. Quality criteria are e.g. heavy metal content, no ecotoxicity, no obviously distinguishable residues.

The European standard EN 13432 defines the minimum requirements packaging has to meet in order to be processed by industrial composting. The following four characteristics must be tested in laboratory:

  1. Disintegration (EN 14045)
  2. Biodegradability (EN 14046)
  3. Absence of negative effects on the process of composting.
  4. Absence of negative effects on the final compost (i.e. reduction of the agronomic value and presence of ecotoxicological effects on the plant growth).


Each of these points is required for the definition of compostability but is not sufficient alone.


Source: This definition of composability is given by CEN (European Committee of Standardisation).


A material is deemed biodegradable if it can be decomposed by the action of micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, algae ...): the result is the formation of water, CO2 and/or methane, and possibly sub-products (residues, new biomass) that are not toxic to the environment.

Biodegradability is assessed by taking into account both the degree of decomposition of a substance, and the time required to obtain this decomposition (test method EN 14046).

Source: this is the definition of biodegradable according to the NF EN 13432 standard on the requirements for packaging recoverable through composting and biodegradation.

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