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What exactly does eco-friendly mean?

Transitioning to a green lifestyle can feel like a big undertaking. What does eco-friendly mean? What is compost and what is biodegradable? How do you know the difference? And how effective is recycling? Actually?

Words like ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are pollution terms that can be affixed to any label. No matter what the label says, it’s good to know what your product is like actually affect the environment.

Learning your way around some common green terms can help you better shop for the products that are best for you and the planet we share.


A Beginner’s Guide to Going Green

  • Eco-friendly subscription box for a happy environment (inside out)
  • The best composters to turn leftovers into soil
  • How to achieve sustained orgasm

A quick guide to eco-friendly vocabulary

Living 100% green and clean is not easy. Lack of income, accessibility and green legislature makes it nearly impossible for the average person to live in harmony with the earth. Different people have different priorities and it is important to know you.

There are many different terms to describe how a product impacts the environment. Each term is designed to help answer one of two questions: how was it created and how was it disposed of?

What does ‘biodegradable’ mean?

Products are considered biodegradable if you leave them in the wild and they will be eaten by bacteria or other microorganisms. Biodegradable materials include:

  • dish
  • cutting tree
  • paper
  • carton
  • untreated wood
  • & other naturally degradable materials.
  • Yes, even you, the meat bag.

But it’s biodegradable

Biodegradable plastic degraded only under certain conditions, like in an industrial facility. And those conditions may not be a truly sustainable option. Those plastics just break down into a lot microplastics.

If organic materials are surrounded by synthetic materials such as plastic, they will not decompose. Instead, they begin to rot, releasing methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. This is why many cities are redesigning landfills to separate waste into compost.


Our favorite biodegradable alternatives:


What is composting?

Similar to biodegradable substances, microorganisms can break down compostable materials in about 90 days. The decomposition process has no harmful effects on the environment and helps gardeners and farmers have healthier soil.

Many people use their own scrap to create compost for their yard. Others send their scraps to a community facility. If you live in the US, you can use Litterless ‘Places to Compost’ List to find a facility near you. Or find your neighborhood community garden for analysis.

What is the difference between biodegradable and compostable?

All organic fertilizers are biodegradable. Not all biodegradable substances are compostable. Those plant-based plastics that we mentioned? Cannot be annealed. Items around your home that can be composted include:

  • food scraps: fruits & vegetables, chopped nuts, peels (easy citrus), non-dairy milk, coffee grounds & loose leaf teas, beans & legumes, herbs & spices, stale bread & cereals, crushed egg shells
  • Paper and cardboard: toilet paper rolls, toothpicks, egg cartons, parchment, unbleached coffee filters
  • cut trees and yards
  • …It’s correct, you can decompose, too.

Other notes about composting:

Your local composting site may have limitations. Community gardens cannot accept oily foods, dairy products, or meat and fish. These items tend to be too smelly for residential compost bins. Other items can only be brewed in a commercial establishment.

EPA does not oversee the labeling or disposal of biodegradable and compostable products. Some states regulate the labeling and disposal of compostable products. You can find your state and city regulations, along with contact information, by using Composting Council of America website.

Does the product’s label say it’s compostable? That doesn’t mean it is. For specific information on product disposal, contact your local composting facility.


Our favorite easy, compostable swaps:


Recyclables & Reusables

Most of us are familiar with recycling and have an opinion on whether it is a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, mostly plastic cannot be recycled properly. The good news is that you can feel confident about clean recycling:

  • glass cup
  • metal (like aluminum cans)
  • aluminum foil (2” ball or larger)
  • paper
  • carton
  • hard plastic (no plastic bag or film)

The best reusable products:


The joy of reuse is everywhere. From frugal shopping to high-end furniture on TikTok. With a little creativity, we’re finding ways to use the widgets we already have. Many companies are getting creative with reusable alternatives to everyday disposable products.


Great examples of product upgrades:


What does ‘eco-friendly’ mean? Other provisions regarding the effects of products on humans, animals and the environment.

  • Your carbon emissions refers to the amount of greenhouse gases your actions release into the atmosphere. You can calculate your carbon footprint online.
  • Products with the label ‘cruelty free‘Do not use animals to test their products. You’ll see this term used most with eco-friendly bath and beauty products. Vegan The items do not contain animal products and they are cruelty free. Some vegans also avoid non-invasive animal products. These products include honey, beeswax or silk.
  • Fair exchange means that all companies involved in the production of products pay their employees fairly and provide humane working conditions. Many large companies outsource production in exchange for cheap labor, such as sweatshops or prison labor. The more we buy those products, the more they need to produce.
  • Organic used to describe agricultural products (such as produce, meat, or cotton) that have not been treated with fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives, or other chemical interventions. Standards for an organic product vary from country to country.
  • ONE renewable resources is a natural resource that can be replenished at the same rate that we consume it. The term is often used to refer to natural energy sources such as wind and solar energy.
  • Sustainability is the practice of maintaining ecological balance by actively replacing the resources we consume. Products that promote sustainability often help you change your habits or lifestyle.
  • ‘Zero waste’ is the idea that products can be created and used without creating any waste. Products like shampoo & conditioner bars, reusable straws, and reusable grocery bags are some popular zero-waste alternatives.

Looking for more sustainable products? Check out our list of eco-friendly gifts keep giving!

Daily Dot may receive a payment in connection with the purchase of the products or services outlined in this article. Read ours Ethical policy to find more about.

*First published: December 17, 2021, 4:16 a.m. CST

Danni Danger

Danni Danger is a freelance writer and screen personality based in Austin, Texas. In 10th grade, they memorized a copy of the “How To Get Started” book and spoke loudly about sexual health and culture to anyone who would listen since. Formerly a YouTube personality, they specialize in producing videos and written content intended to entertain, educate, and make even sailors blush.

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