Breaking Down Sustainability Buzzwords

A key part of sustainability is what happens at the end of a product’s life, and — let's be honest — some of the buzzwords about that part can be downright confusing. Here's a little guide to what all those trash-alternative terms really mean.

Breaking down sustainability buzzwords, Photo by Karolina Grabowska

As a brand on a mission to end plastic waste in beauty, we're loving all the innovation happening in sustainable packaging. However, a key part of sustainability is what happens at the end of a product’s life, and — let's be honest — some of the buzzwords about that part can be downright confusing.

To make efforts in sustainable consumption as easy as possible, here's a little guide to what all those trash-alternative terms really mean.


Hypothetically, something with the little "recyclable" triangle and a number in the middle should be able to go into any recycling bin and be handled by your city’s recycling system. Recycling covers (clean and only certain types of) plastics, glass, aluminum, other metals, and paper products including newspaper and cardboard.

However, as this post on why we went plastic free goes into, there are some serious limitations on recycling. Plus, every U.S. municipal recycling system is different — some accept certain “number” plastics, while others filter by type (e.g. “clamshell”) or size; some sort recycling by type, while others have you chuck it all in together.

TLDR: To get it right, you have to check your local guidelines. Just because a plastic item has the little recycling triangle with a number in it does not mean it can or will get recycled. For example, check out what the city of Seattle has to say about plastics.

Have plastics that can't go in the recycling bin? Check to see if any local groups offer hard-to-recycle-plastics and Styrofoam pop-ups, or sign up for a service like Ridwell. (Not an ad, just a fan.) 



This one is a bit of a doozy. At the basic level, biodegradable means that the material will break down into increasingly smaller pieces and be reabsorbed by the environment via the presence of microbes, fungi, or bacteria. 

Though it sounds simple enough, this term is a bit unclear because 1) it’s unregulated, and 2) pretty much everything decays eventually — it could just take 400 years, like some plastic does.

Generally speaking, a brand that uses the term “biodegradable” probably is well-intentioned and means that the item will break down reasonably quickly if it ends up in the trash. 

However, there are a few common pitfalls to consider when something is labeled biodegradable:

Does it look like it’s going to break down quickly? A paper cup? Sounds pretty good! A plastic fork? Maybe not. 
What will it break down into? Just because something will break down, doesn’t mean that we’ll like the tiny bits it breaks down into. For example, this U.S. study found that biodegradable plastics generate the most methane gas (a greenhouse gas) in the average landfill.
Will it happen at all? Decomposition requires certain conditions, like exposure to oxygen and heat. If an item gets buried completely in a landfill and doesn’t have access to these, it won’t degrade at all.

Confused? What to do with a “biodegradable” item.

  1. If the item is uncoated paperboard, it can most likely be chucked in your backyard compost. Do that.
  2. If the item is coated paperboard (like a coffee cup) and doesn’t say anything about being compostable, toss it — plastic coatings need to be certified compostable to ensure they don’t break down into toxic materials. 
  3. If the item is plastic (and not compostable), clean it and put it in the recycling; if it’s able to be recycled, it will live a longer life than if tossed. Win.
  4. If in doubt, you’ve got to toss it. “Wishful recycling” only causes problems, and you don’t want something in the compost that doesn’t belong there.



Compostable means the material will break down via microbial activity into non-toxic components, such as water and carbon dioxide, in a reasonable amount of time (we’re talking months, ideally).

For plastics to use the "Compostable" label, products are supposed to meet U.S. industrial composting standards ASTM D6400 and ASTM D6868, which require composting to be complete — and toxin-free — within 90 days.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between what is compostable in an industrial system, and what can be thrown in your backyard compost. Chances are high that sturdy plastics (think cups, utensils, etc) need to be industrial compost — read the stamp on the item carefully. 

How to dispose of Axiology products

Boxes > Recycle or throw in your backyard compost.

Balmie wrappers > Recycle or throw in your backyard compost.

Multi-Stick Tubes > Clean thoroughly, put the cap back on, and recycle; or clean and throw in your backyard compost.

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