Composting vs Recycling: Vive la Différence

Recycling symbol made from plant

More than half a century after being introduced to the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” today virtually all Americans recognize the logo of three white arrows forming a loop. We know the bins marked with that sign are for paper and plastic. When pressed, however, many of us are somewhat hazy on the details: Can straws go in there? What about grocery sacks? Where does all this stuff go, anyway?

What’s more, many consumers who want to help the environment don’t realize that an amazing, natural method of recycling is bundled right there into the 3R’s, too–composting. So if composting is recycling, is recycling composting? 

Let’s take a look at these two categories of responsible waste management to clear up any confusion you might have and learn why both methods can and should be used to keep waste out of landfills.

What Is Composting?

Compost windrows at commercial composting facility

Composting is essentially controlled decomposition, in which organic waste is naturally broken down into a nutrient-rich fertilizer known as compost. The factors that must be controlled are:

  1. the balance of “green” and “brown” materials (see below)
  2. the size of the materials’ pieces (small produces a homogenous mixture, but too small can restrict airflow)
  3. airflow
  4. moisture, which sustains the microorganisms that break down the materials
  5. temperature, which is optimal between 130 and 140 degrees for hot composting.

There are many different techniques for composting, from the small-scale vermicomposting (using red worms) and aerated pile (using airflow tubes or other design to eliminate the need for turning), to industrial-strength windrow composting (stacking compost in long rows up to 16 feet high). 
Read more about the differences between commercial and home composting.

What Can Be Composted?

“Brown” compostables deliver the necessary carbon to the compost, and include:

  • dry leaves
  • pine needles
  • wood chips
  • branches
  • corn stalks
  • shredded brown bags
  • straw
  • shredded paper
  • shredded cardboard

“Green” compostables bring the needed nitrogen, and they include:

  • grass clippings
  • food scraps,
  • animal manure
  • crushed eggshells
  • coffee grounds
  • vegetable scraps
  • fruit scraps
  • fresh hay
  • loose tea leaves.

The Benefits of Composting

Composting offers incredible value with basically zero downsides, making it a terrific activity for anyone interested in caring for the environment. 

Like recycling, it helps keep waste out of landfills. When food waste ends up in landfills, the lack of oxygen leads to anaerobic composting which produces methane. Methane is very effective at trapping heat, making it a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. 

Composting also helps keep chemical fertilizer out of the ecosystem, since it can be used as a fertilizer alternative. Runoff from chemical fertilizer is a nightmare for the environment

What’s more, compost is a great fertilizer! It’s biodiverse, improves water retention and soil structure, and is much less expensive than store-bought fertilizer. Studies have found crops grown in compost to produce significantly more biomass. 

Composting also has a socializing component and is a valuable educational tool, often used as part of community gardens and school programs.

Where and How Does Composting Take Place?

The composting process can be done almost anywhere, from backyards to composting facilities to greenhouses, and even indoors. The organic waste that must be collected to supply the compost can come from anywhere, as well, from single family homes and apartments to hospitals, stadiums, and schools. 

Once the compostables are binned and ready to be put on a pile, a few different things can happen. If it’s a household operation, the homeowner may carry the waste out to a compost pile in the backyard, or drive it to a farmer’s market or community garden and drop it off for someone else to compost. It may then be composted on-site or sent to an industrial facility. 

In some places, either a municipal or private collection service will come and pick up the compostables from the curb. This will usually be the process for large composting operations such as on college campuses. The waste is typically taken to a large facility to be processed and the resulting compost donated.

Composting Challenges

The biggest challenge for many people who’re interested in composting may be how to go about getting involved. For those without access to curbside pickup, composting will likely be more inconvenient than recycling. You’ll either need to drive your compostables somewhere to be dropped off, or learn to do it yourself, which can raise its own challenges: deciding which method to use, putting in the time, finding the space, etc. 

Composting is also something of an art, which can be frustrating for beginners who try their hand at it. It’s almost like baking: if your mixture is too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold…you won’t get the results you want. You’ll also create other problems, such as excess odor, attracting flies, and creating unusable or damaging compost. 

Fortunately, there are nearly endless resources online for finding help, and the stakes are, after all, very low. If you mess up a batch, there’s always more food waste there to be composted!

What Is Recycling?

Typically, “recycling” means post-consumer waste being sorted, sent to a reclaimer, and converted into new material. This new material can either be of the same kind as the original (known as item-to-item recycling, such as a plastic bottle being made into a new plastic bottle), or a different kind (known as downcycling, such as a plastic bottle being converted into carpet). 

Recycling may take the form of chemical recycling or mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling splits polymer chains to create products such as fuels, while mechanical recycling physically crushes, shreds, sorts, melts, washes, pelletizes, and/or otherwise transforms the material. 

Despite the promise of chemical recycling and funding currently being allocated to expand it, mechanical recycling makes up virtually the entirety of the recycling operations in the world.

What Can Be Recycled?

Here is the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of common recyclables:

  • paper/cardboard
  • plastics
  • glass
  • aluminum
  • batteries
  • electronics
  • food
  • lawn materials
  • used oil
  • household hazardous waste
  • tires
  • metal
  • miscellaneous

Granted, it’s a large list, but a lot of context is needed here. Just because something can be recycled doesn’t necessarily mean it can be recycled conveniently, or freely, or legally in your area, and these factors vary from city to city and state to state.  

For example, the EPA states aluminum foil can be recycled, but the city of Lexington, Kentucky instructs residents to never recycle aluminum foil. In another discrepancy, the EPA says greasy pizza boxes can be recycled, but Lexington asks residents to rip out grease-stained parts of the box before recycling. 

Batteries are another complicated item, particularly because there are so many different kinds. According to the EPA, “most” batteries–including lithium-ion, lithium metal, lead-acid, nickel cadmium, and other rechargeable batteries–require special handling and shouldn’t be thrown in municipal recycling bins. However, you may be able to take them to a retailer such as Best Buy to be recycled. 

Similarly, household hazardous waste items such as unused paints, pesticides, and antifreeze typically must be taken to either community recycling facilities or special collection events. 

The Benefits of Recycling

There’s no denying the positive impacts recycling can have. These include:

  • reducing the need to create new products and extract new materials through mining, lumbering, etc., helping conserve natural resources
  • reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills, improving air quality and lowering emissions
  • saving energy, as making products from recycled materials requires less energy than making them from raw materials
  • providing nearly 700,000 jobs in the U.S.

Where and How Does Recycling Take Place?

Recycling bins are ubiquitous. You may find them in dentists’ offices, malls, movie theaters, or libraries. Many businesses incorporate recycling into their ESG (environmental, social, governance) programs, and most municipalities offer curbside recycling pickup to their residents. On top of this, there are recycling centers scattered throughout the country that accept various recyclables that aren’t accepted in your average bins, such as batteries or hazardous chemicals. 

Ideally, after they’re picked up recyclables are sent to a stateside processing facility. (Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, as we discuss below.) The industry research database IBISWorld puts the total number of these companies at a little over 1,000 in the U.S. Here the items are sorted via machine as they pass along on conveyor belts. 

Steel and paper are collected and carted out to foundries and paper mills, respectively, to be broken down for reuse. Glass is sorted by color then crushed, then melted to the point it can be poured. Aluminum, too, is shredded, melted, and poured into molds. Finally, plastic is either melted down, ground into powder, or trashed.

Recycling Challenges

Recycling is far from a perfect solution, which is why it is the last of the “3R’s.” 

One shortcoming is that most materials have a limit to how many times they can be converted into something else via mechanical recycling before the quality is degraded. For example, most plastics top out between 3-7 times. Thus, eventually they simply have to be sent to a landfill.  

While this is not a problem for plastics chemically recycled, that process demands more energy and produces more CO2 emissions than mechanical recycling. It also requires toxic chemicals to dissolve the plastics.

Another issue is the difficulty involved in recycling certain items such as potato chip bags or cheese packages that have several layers of film or even a layer of aluminum. Trying to separate out these layers is simply not practical or economically viable for recyclers. 

In fact, mechanical recycling is expensive, and what’s more, at least in the case of plastic, the end product is both more expensive and lower quality than virgin plastic. 

Perhaps the worst issue with recycling is the fact that many tons of recyclables have been shipped abroad from the U.S., primarily to China, where there is little oversight and the items may be trashed, burned, or even dumped in the ocean. Many Americans remain unaware of where much of their recycling actually goes.  

Since China’s 2017 decision to stop importing recyclable plastics and other forms of solid waste, waste management companies and government authorities around the world have continued to be pressured by the question of what to do with their recyclables streams.

Composting vs Recycling Comparison

MaterialsVegetables, fruit, lawn waste, eggshells, table scraps, manure, paper, cardboard, coffee grounds, tea leavesPlastics, metals, paper, cardboard, glass, electronics, batteries, paint, pesticides, oil, rubber, and more
BenefitsKeeps waste out of landfills, lowers methane  emissions, creates nutrient-rich soil additive, reduces need for and runoff of chemical fertilizer, saves money on fertilizerKeeps waste out of landfills, lowers emissions, conserves natural resources, saves energy, supports thousands of American jobs
ChallengesInvolves a learning curve, can create a nuisance if not done correctly, wait time for achieving usable compost, limited access to curbside programsLow participation, not as green as composting, limits to number of times items can be recycled, expensive, lack of transparency has created public mistrust of the process
Where it HappensCollection: Homes, apartments, restaurants, hospitals, schools, civic centers, and more

Processing: Backyards, greenhouses, composting facilities, community gardens, kitchens, and more
Collection: Homes, businesses, shopping centers, public buildings, special events, sports stadiums, and more

Processing: Recycling plants, foundries, paper mills

Like a Wink and a Smile, Composting and Recycling Go Together

As we’ve seen, very few items can be both recycled and composted. That means that if you only do one or the other, you’re missing out on opportunities to reduce your landfill contributions.

To make the most impact, do both!

As we’ve seen, you have a range of options for getting involved in composting. You may want or need to compost at home, or you can drop off your compostable items with someone who accepts them, even if it’s just a neighbor. Or you can take advantage of a curbside composting service if there’s one in your area, where all you’re responsible for is collecting the waste and putting it out for pickup.

The Battle to Recycle and Compost More

By the numbers, Americans have room to do way more than they are when it comes to diverting waste from landfills. 

Roughly one-third of items that could be composted or recycled in the U.S. actually are, according to the EPA. When isolating food composting, the composting rate was a paltry 4.1% in 2018. The plastics recycling rate has never broken double digits.

On the bright side, landfilling of waste fell from 94% of the amount generated in 1960 to 50% of the amount generated in 2018.

How Can We Recycle More?

A 2021 World Economic Forum global survey identified the primary reasons people say they don’t recycle more. The top response was a lack of available recycling programs or services. In North America, a high number of respondents said recycling was either inconvenient, or they lacked trust in recycling programs.

So expanding access to curbside recycling programs–which The Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report found just half of Americans have access to–could increase recycling participation rates. 

Increasing education and transparency for recycling programs by both municipal governments and recycling centers could strengthen public trust in recycling and demonstrate the importance and benefit of participating.

How Can We Compost More?

More and more cities and municipalities are starting to offer their residents curbside composting services. But you don’t have to wait for a program to start up in your area; you can start at home today and have compost ready for use in two months, with warm enough weather. 

For many lucky Texans, an easy composting solution is already just a call or click away: signing up with Moonshot Compost. 

We provide everything you need to get started collecting food scraps, collect it from you (or you can bring it to us), and create the compost on our end that you can claim or donate, whichever you prefer.