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Recycling 101 - Recycling Terms

A Glossary of Common Terms and What They Mean

Welcome to part two in our Recycling 101 series covering the fundamentals of recycling. In part one, we covered why we should recycle, and today we are going to dive into the most common terms in recycling and waste management.

Unfortunately, like any industry, waste management is filled with industry-specific jargon that can feel overwhelming when you’re first starting. Luckily, the more you learn about recycling, the more empowered you will feel in your workplace recycling system. Below we have compiled a list of the most common terms you may hear while embarking on your recycling journey with their definitions. Keep this list handy to refer back to whenever you need it.

We’ve broken down the terms into three sections:

  • Type of Waste and Materials;
  • End of Life and Waste Processing; and
  • Waste Mitigation

Types of Waste and Materials

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): Collective term for everyday single-use items discarded by commercial and residential areas. Most people know this as ‘rubbish,’ trash,’ or ‘garbage.’

Post-Industrial Waste (Factory Waste): Waste produced from industrial establishments, such as factories, during the manufacturing process. This is often scrap materials, overruns, or other processing waste.

Pre-Consumer Waste (i.e. Factory Waste): Like post-industrial, pre-consumer waste is also produced from factories during manufacturing, but in excessive or unsellable products.

Post-Consumer Waste: Waste that has reached a customer’s possession and is disposed of by them. This type of waste dominates our municipal waste in landfills and recycling bins.

Recyclable materials: Materials that can be broken down into raw materials to be created into new products. Generally, this includes metals, glass, and plastics, though there is a variation on where those materials can be recycled.

Organic Waste

Pre-consumer Food Waste: Pre-consumer food waste is the waste that is produced during the farming or manufacturing process before it reaches consumers. This includes food that isn’t considered good enough to sell and any bi-products made from food processing.

Post-consumer Food Waste: Post-consumer food waste is any waste produced after reaching consumers, including scraps created during chopping, food that goes bad in the fridge, or chicken bones that are inedible for humans.

Compostable materials: Materials that can break down into organic matter using natural processes. Generally, this includes food scraps, garden waste, and other natural materials.

Biodegradables: Like compostable, it describes an item that can break down into organic matter but relies on biological facilitation from bacteria and fungi. This includes bioplastics.

Bioplastics/PLA: Plastic materials that are made from natural materials such as vegetable oils, sugar cane, or corn starch, instead of petroleum. They are normally biodegradable and not recyclable.

Virgin materials: Raw materials that have not previously been processed or used in the creation of products.

Electronic Waste (E-waste): Waste that includes any electronic part, including computers, wires, circuit boards, and phones. This type of waste must be disassembled and separated in order to recycle or reuse.

Resin Identification Code (RIC): A numbered system identifying various plastic polymers used in products. These are the numbers – #1 to #7 – generally found on the bottom of plastic containers in the chasing arrows symbol ♻️.

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End of Life and Waste Processing

Upcycling: Upcycling is the process of reusing a product that is no longer fit for purpose into a new useful item, such as reupholstering old furniture or turning cans and containers into pots for plants. Unlike recycling or downcycling, this usually doesn’t involve breaking a product down but instead repurposing it as is.

Recycling: Recycling is the process of breaking down a product into its components or raw materials to be remade into a new product of similar quality. For example, glass bottles are remade into new glass bottles.

Downcycling: Downcycling is the process of breaking down material to make something new but of a lower quality than the original product. This can be due to contamination or natural degradation over time. Downcycling isn’t as great as general recycling, but still better than sending material to landfills.

Waste streams: The flow system for the cycle of waste from its source to the recovery, recycling, or ultimately disposal of the waste.

Source Separation: The system of separating types of waste based on the material type and the processing and recovering of that material. I.e. separating recycling from landfill from organic waste.

Material Recovery Facility (MRF): A Material Recovery Facility sorts and prepares single-stream recyclable materials for end-of-life manufacturers to buy.

Biogas: A renewable gas created by the anaerobic digestive breakdown of compostable materials.

Anaerobic Digestion: The process of decomposition where microorganisms consume organic matter without the facilitation of oxygen. It’s also known as rotting and generally happens to food waste within a landfill.

Aerobic Digestion: The process of natural decomposition where microorganisms consume organic matter in an oxygenated environment.

Waste-to-Energy Facility: A facility that incinerates accumulated municipal waste in a way that creates energy to be used for other purposes like electricity.

Waste Mitigation

Recovery Rate: The amount of waste that is prevented from going to the landfill for use in a different way, whether that is through recycling or another purpose such as composting.

Recycling Rate: Similar to the recovery rate, the amount of waste prevented from going to the landfill to be regenerated into new products or materials.

Waste diversion: Also called landfill diversion, this refers to the process of preventing waste from going to landfills by redirecting it to recycling or composting facilities.

Zero Waste: A system that incorporates reducing and recycling as much waste as feasibly possible. The exact definition of how much this entails, but for workplaces, a 90% diversion rate is the general standard for being considered zero waste.

Source Reduction: Decreasing the amount of material from a particular source by addressing the manufacturing, processing, or consuming patterns that generally generate that material.

Contamination: Waste that ends up in streams where it doesn’t belong and affects the processing and recycling of that material.

Product Stewardship: When a company that creates a product takes responsibility for the environmental impacts of the materials used in the product from the start of life to the end of life, ensuring that they are correctly disposed of or recycled.

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