Biodegradable or renewable? – mastering the environmental terminology

The environmental friendliness of a product is not determined only by its contents. Sustainability must be viewed from the perspective of the product’s entire life cycle, so it’s no wonder that laypersons can be confused by the terminology.

Environmental impacts are reduced in a number of ways, starting from the raw materials, manufacturing and packaging to logistics, modes of use and, eventually, disposal. Product development professionals are working hard to always find new and advanced ways to make products more environmentally friendly.

What’s the difference between biodegradable and renewable raw material? What does mass balance mean and when is a raw material a secondary raw material? We’ve explained a few key environmental terms:

A secondary raw material originates in consumer waste or as an industrial by-product. Such material flows used to end up as waste taken to landfill sites or burnt for energy. We now want to use waste material to produce new materials.

Bio-based raw material comes from nature. It may also be recycled if it is created, for example, as an industrial by-product and can be used as raw material for another product.

Organic matter is, by chemical definition, a carbon-based material or compound. The carbon may originate from nature or fossil sources, such as oil or coal. Fossil raw materials are non-renewable.

Renewable materials are any natural resources that regenerate relatively quickly, for example by regrowing. Not all material created in nature is considered renewable. For example, petroleum, sand or calcareous dolomite created by corals regenerate so slowly that they are not considered renewable materials.

Biodegradable material is a material that decomposes naturally within a certain time under specific conditions. A biodegradable material is compostable when it breaks down into nutrients within a certain time and under certain conditions.

Mass balance means the ratio between petroleum and biodiesel used in the manufacture of an oil-based product. When part of the petroleum fed into an oil refinery is replaced with bio-based substances, the refined products can be said to contain such substances in the same proportion. For example, canola oil, rapeseed oil or palm oil, frying fats or even fish guts can be used to make biodiesel. So far, however, the availability of bio-based oil products has been very limited, and demand exceeds supply. 

The purpose of the circular economy is to create as little waste as possible, or even zero waste. This can be achieved when raw materials and other materials are used for long periods and any by-products and excess materials can be channelled to other manufacturing processes as side streams. The circular economy is not only environmentally friendly and efficient, but also creates new business opportunities. Alongside the sale of what were previously considered waste materials as raw materials, new services are needed to enable the circular economy. Cooperation between companies will increase and become more open as they jointly consider environmentally friendly circular economy solutions. Using recycled materials does not mean that the products made from them are of inferior quality. On the contrary, the circular economy is continuously trying to develop longer-lasting products. This will keep products in use for a long time, reducing the need for new replacements.