Something’s been on my mind lately. It’s the fact that the word “recycled” is being used over and over to describe anything that’s been diverted from the waste stream. But in truth, “recycled” refers only to things that have been produced from remanufactured recycled material. For other things that are being diverted from the waste stream, there are more accurate terms like “reclaimed”, “reused” or “composted”. Here’s my interpretation of what all these terms mean:
If something is “recycled” it’s been newly manufactured with a percentage of recycled materials. “Recycled material” is a formerly whole material or product that has been recovered and broken down (e.g. pulverized or melted) to create a second (or third or fourth…) generation raw material which is then used to produce a new material or product. Examples include deck boards made with the plastic from HDPE milk jugs and paper made from recovered waste paper.
Something is considered “reclaimed” when it has been either accidentally or deliberately found and recovered with the intention of diverting it from the waste stream and making use of it elsewhere in either its current or a refurbished state. Examples include building materials and architectural pieces (i.e. brick, moldings, countertops, light fixtures, etc.) that are salvaged during demolition projects and reused as-is or repurposed.
Many durable goods are being made with reclaimed materials too, such as handbags made from reclaimed seatbelts, snack bags or newspaper. Anything reclaimed is also reused, but something reused is not always reclaimed.
“Reused” is a broad term. Basically the “green” definition of reused is anything that is passed from one user to another–as in the case of hand-me-downs–or diverted from the waste stream for extended use, such as when using the same plastic Ziplock bag over and over again. Substituting permanent products for disposable products is also reuse, such as when electing to use a steel thermos instead of a paper cup to hold your coffeehouse beverage. The reason reuse is not recycling is because reuse involves using something in its current form or deconstructing something to make use of individual parts.
Something is “composted” if it started as organic material and decomposed in an aerobic environment. Composted food or yard waste is not “recycled” since the process happens naturally. (See “recycled above.)
Crissy Trask is the founder of GreenMatters.com, a green lifestyle coach, and the best-selling author of It’s Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living. You can follow her on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to her blog.