Is Biodegradable Different Than Recyclable and Why?

Question: I have noticed that a lot of “eco friendly” products are labeled biodegradable. Is biodegradable different than recyclable and why?
By definition, biodegradable means that the product has the ability to breakdown. But, most substances have the ability to eventually breakdown and the decomposed substance may still be harmful. However, Thus, the rate and safety of breakdown and reintegration into the biosphere are the key factors to analyze. Since the late 1990’s, there has been a noticeable rise in the marketing of biodegradable products. Today, these products only cost a bit more than the non-biodegradable products and they used to cost 10 times more in the later half of the 80’s. As we continue to support the market by buying these biodegradable products, the price should continue to drop.
Recyclable and biodegradable products can serve to reduce landfills and litter, but they work differently. Recyclable products can be broken down and used again and therefore reduce consumption by cutting down on the amount of waste produced. Biodegradable products are meant to disappear back into the environment and never turn into waste products. However, disposing of biodegradable products is the biggest difficulty.
Biodegradable products may have been specifically designed for composting. Whether manufactured or inherently biodegradable (tree trimmings and food waste), these products cannot breakdown in landfills or sewage systems because they do not provide proper water, light, and bacterial activity required for the decay process. Often, once a manufacturer achieves an “eco-friendly” label, they are not overwhelmingly concerned with the products disposal.
According the University of British Columbia, here is a short summary of commonly used items and how long it takes for them to biodegrade when they are scattered about as litter

Length of time
Cotton rags
1-5 months
2-5 months
3-14 months
Orange peels
6+ months due to the antibacterial mold that develops
Wool socks
1-5 yrs
Cigarette butts
1-12 yrs
Plastic coated paper milk cartons
5 yrs
Plastic bags
10-20 yrs
Leather shoes
25-40 yrs or more
Nylon fabric
30-40 yrs
Tin cans
50-100 yrs and then we get toxic tin into the environment!
Aluminum cans
80-100 yrs and then we get toxic aluminum into the environment!
Plastic 6-pack holder rings
450 yrs and, of course, how many birds have died by suffocating after getting caught in these rings in the meantime?
Glass bottles
1 million yrs
Plastic bottles

Due to the organic ingredients of biodegradable products that may touch our food, there are specific kashrut issues to consider. Typically, the major components of biodegradable products and resins are polymers such as corn starch, potato starch, and various forms of polyesters. The more lenient view holds that though the items in question are food based, the final product is inedible and, therefore, does not require a hechsher. The other school of thought holds that all food based products, even processed beyond recognition, require kosher supervision and/or hechsher as they may contain non-kosher ingredients. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require listing every ingredient as long as the content is under 2%, making it difficult to know all the ingredients. There is some room for leniency if the product is deemed inedible even to a dog.
[Note: The above should not be taken as halachic rulings. Whenever food/organic products are involved in the production of items used for food consumption it is necessary to consult a Rabbi to determine whether these products a) require constant supervision b) require a review of the ingredients and process used to obtain a hechser and/or c) are inedible to a dog and, therefore, do not require kosher certification.]

Originally posted in “On Eagles’ Wings” July 18th 2004