The wild west of environmental terms is confusing. What does eco-friendly, sustainable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable even mean?! It’s hard to decipher if what we are buying is actually good, better or best for the environment. 

A lot of these terms come from what happens when we throw something “away”, but when each city across the has their own waste management system these common industry environmental terms only get more complicated. 

To demystify the confusion, here is our best attempt at a glossary to breakdown and define the language.

TERMS used to describe products and services, often the process by which they are made:

  1. “Environmentally friendly” or “eco-friendly”
    • DEFINITION: This is a term to claim that a product or service is less environmentally harmful than other products and services in its same family. 
      • For example, chlorine bleach vs. non-chlorine bleach.
    • The FTC Green Guides say that in order for a product to be properly labeled as “eco-friendly”, the packaging must explain why it is environmentally responsible. Otherwise, the claims are too “vague” to be meaningful.
    • SUMMARY: Reducing air pollution, toxic chemical usage and water waste are all good goals, but be careful, because the product might not even be safe for the environment or human use in the first place. Less bad isn’t necessarily good.
  2. “Sustainable” and “Sustainability” 
    • Everyone has their own definition, from the UN to Merriam Webster all centered around the mitigation of natural resource use. 
    • We challenge those definitions with a new framework to encourage circular design based on nature and resource reutilization, because let’s face it, humans have occupied pretty much everywhere around the planet minus the ancient civilizations under the Artics. 
    • SUMMARY: This is why we define sustainability as the absence of waste, more here.

TERMS used to describe the next life of a product or service:

  1. Recyclable
    • DEFINITION: The process of converting waste into a reusable material.
    • The recycling system is complicated, sadly only 9% of plastic products are recycled, so we think “recycling” should be replaced by the word “downcycling” which we define below.
    • A company can place the universal recycle symbol on a product if most people who buy the product can recycle it. However, each city has its own recycling systems. 
    • Additionally paper, metal, aluminum and plastic containers with cool branding and colorful stickers are often contaminating the ability for the product to be recycled – think yogurt containers. 
    • SUMMARY: Recycling is not the antidote to poor design. For general guidelines, containers with codes 1 and 2 are the most recycled products, more here.
  2. Compostable 
    • DEFINITION: A material that can be broken down in soil AND enrich the soil by returning nutrients to Earth. 
    • There are items that are “backyard compostable” (leaves, grass, food) or “certified compostable” (bioplastics). 
    • A certified compostable product meets the ASTM D6400 and/or D6868 standards so consumers, composters, regulators and others can be assured that the product will biodegrade as expected, but only in a commercially compostable facility.
    • This means, your “certified compostable” plastic food container, must be fully rinsed off all food scraps AND must go to a commercial compostable facility in order to be composted. 
  1. Biodegradable
    • DEFINITION: A real tricky term. Defined as an item that is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.
    • Ok, many argue that everything eventually biodegrades like a piece of plastic will biodegrade in 1,000+ years, but when we discover a 180,000 year old human jawbone fossil, conditions really matter for biodegradability. 
    • SUMMARY: If a company says its product is “degradable,” then the company should have proof that the product will completely break down and return to nature in a landfill in the time or at the rate state (which should not be 180,000 years, ha.)

TERMS used to describe the next life of a product or service:

  1. Downcycling
    • Verb: Transforming a product into an inferior one, such as grinding running shoes down to create the surface of basketball courts or plastic bottles for yoga pants. 
    • Result: A loss in performance characteristics. 
  2. Upcycling 
    • Verb: Converting a product into a superior form, such as spinning nylon 6 carpets to be used infinitely without any loss in performance characteristics.
    • Result: No loss in performance characteristics. 


The goal is to get products out of landfills, oceans and incinerators. The way to do this is with great design. As you shop, look for brands and companies who are transparent and committed to making circular products, like our team at NOUR ZERO.