Earth Friendly: The difference between recycled, recyclable

Nov. 30, 2010 at 5:30 a.m.
Updated Dec. 2, 2010 at 6:02 a.m.

Meridith Byrd

Meridith Byrd

By Meridith Byrd

I have heard the words recyclable and recycled used interchangeably, often in the context of shopping bags, even though the two words have very different meanings.

The term recyclable means that an item can be made into a new product. Many items are recyclable, from grocery bags to laundry detergent bottles to soup cans to cereal boxes. Recycled items, however, are those that have been processed and made into new products. Those grocery bags are made into garbage bags, the detergent bottles into plastic lumber, and the soup cans and paperboard cereal boxes into new cans and boxes.

Buying a recyclable item is only part of the overall process - once it has been used the consumer still needs to get it to a recycling facility, where the process can be completed.

When looking for recycled products to purchase, you might come across the words "post-consumer content." Post-consumer content is anything that has been diverted from the waste stream through some sort of recycling process. For example, a customer buys a box of cookies, and when the cookies have been eaten, the box is taken to a recycling drop-off location. It is then shipped to a recycling facility to be broken down and recycled into a new box, which winds up back on the store shelf to be used and recycled again. Because the original cookie box was used by a consumer, it is considered post-consumer material.

Cardboard and paperboard boxes often include recycled material and will usually have a stamp on the bottom indicating a minimum percentage of post-consumer content. This is important because scraps and trimmings from the manufacturing process can be considered recycled material without having ever been used by the consumer. So a package that indicates "minimum 40 percent post-consumer content," means that at least 40 percent of that package is made from materials that were recycled by the consumer.

The higher the amount of post-consumer waste in a product, the more recycled material it contains, which means less virgin material was used in the making. So in addition to recycling as many things as you can, it is equally important to look for post-consumer content in the items you buy as a way to support those companies who incorporate recycled materials into their products or packaging.

With the holidays just around the corner, now is your chance to look for products that either have minimal packaging or recycled packaging, as well as for recycled items you can use, such as wrapping paper. This Christmas, when you are gathering up the wrapping paper and boxes after a morning of opening gifts, don't throw them away. All of these things are recyclable. Drop them off to be recycled into new products that might make their way under your tree next year.

Meridith Byrd is a marine biologist and invites readers to contact her at



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