You can walk the recycling walk, but can you talk the talk? We’ve compiled a list of recycling terms and definitions to help you:

Closed Loop Recycling: Remanufacturing of a product back into the same product, such as with aluminum cans. Also as in “Close the Loop”- By purchasing products containing recycled materials, we encourage the manufacture and demand for these products, providing a use for the recyclable materials that companies and communities collect. The term can also refer to take-back programs, where companies are responsible for the disposal of their products.

Compost: Nature’s way of recycling. Process of allowing natural materials to decompose (break down) due to natural chemical reactions or with the help of fungi, bacteria and/or worms, and the correct temperature. Also called “Rot,” which can be considered the fourth “R” alongside Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

Creative Reuse: Process of taking used or recycled materials and turning them into a creative piece of art, home decoration, or other useful items instead of treating the materials as waste.

Downcyling: After materials aren’t considered as valuable, they can be used in a degraded form for their components other than their original use. White writing paper fibers, for example, are often downcycled into cardboard since they cannot be used to create more premium writing paper.

Dual Stream Recycling: Curbside system where recyclable items like papers or glass are sorted out by residents in one bin and other items such as containers are separated in another. Bins are usually color-coded and set out on the same pick-up day.

Open Loop Recycling: Process where material from one or more products is made into a new product, usually involving a change in the material itself. For example, plastics that were used as packaging can be made into recycled plastic lumber or outdoor furniture. Also called reprocessing.

Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT): Program where residents are charged for the collection of municipal solid waste (ordinary household trash) based on the amount they throw away. This creates a direct economic incentive to recycle more and to generate less waste. Also known as unit pricing or variable-rate pricing.

Preconsumer: Materials that are by-products generated from a manufacturing process that are recovered and incorporated for recycling. This is before a person (consumer) uses them. Also known as “post-industrial.” Examples are things like paper or textile trimmings.

Postconsumer: Materials that have served their intended use as consumer items and have been recovered or diverted from the waste stream for recycling. Examples of postconsumer recovered materials can be anything from used beverage containers to wine corks. Manufacturers have the option of increasing the percentage of postconsumer content in a product they manufacture.

Precycling: Practice of preventing waste before it happens. If we reduce, reuse and think before we buy things, we conserve resources, create way less waste and end up saving money too. Precycling includes such practices as buying items in bulk to reduce packaging, buying items with easy-to-recycle packaging, removing your name from junk mail lists, receiving your bills electronically, or reading amazing electronic media like RecycleScene instead of magazines or newspapers.

Product Stewardship and Manufacturer Responsibility: Product Stewardship recognizes how responsibility is shared, and a commitment is required from not just manufacturers and consumers, but also designers, suppliers, distributors, retailers, recyclers, and disposers. Basically anyone involved in producing, selling, or using a product takes responsibility for the full environmental and economic impacts of that product. Be sure to read our in-depth article on product stewardship here.

Recycle: Process of reclaiming materials from used products or materials from their manufacturing and using them in the manufacturing of new products. There are tons more ways to recycle than you thought!

Reclaimed: The process or industry of deriving usable materials from waste or by-products.

Recycled content: The portion of a product, by weight or volume, that is composed of preconsumer and/or postconsumer recovered materials. The percentage of recovered materials used in a product or within product categories can vary significantly. Generally, choose higher levels of recycled content.

Recycled Products: Products made with recovered materials. When you buy recycled, you buy from manufacturers that purchase recovered materials and use them instead of virgin materials in the manufacture of new products. Recycled products are manufactured to meet the same performance standards as virgin products. The percentage of recycled materials in a product or can vary.

Reduce: A sustainable strategy is to reduce the amount of energy and materials we use and as a consequence, less stuff needs to be manufactured. This reduces the need for recycling, but also for packaging, transportation, cleaning, disposal, and a bunch other costs, and is often considered the most sustainable option.

Remanufacturing: Process of cleaning and repairing used products and parts to be used again, or for replacements.

Repurposing: To reuse an item for a different purpose than for which it was manufactured or intended. Items can be unchanged or altered in some way to be repurposed.

Reuse: Products are not destroyed and remanufactured but cleaned and repaired to be used again. Materials and objects are already manufactured are used again either for their original or new purposes, rather than recycled into other products. This uses less energy and materials than recreating them into a new form.

Salvaged: Used often in the context of deconstruction/demolition waste. For example, materials or components that are sourced or recovered from other buildings are reused as-is or modified for a new project. Example: wood timbers are reused into flooring products, doors or frames, or cabinetry. This reduces consumption of new resources.

Note: Reclaimed vs Salvaged: These terms are often used interchangeably. If there’s a distinction between them, it’s that “reclaimed” more often refers to already-manufactured products that are remanufactured into new ones. “Salvaged” more often refers to the straight reuse of products that can be salvaged from a variety of sources: from buildings, on curbsides, junk yards, found items, etc.

Single Stream Recycling: Curbside system in which all paper, glass and containers is mixed together in a collection truck, instead of being sorted into separate items by residents and handled separately throughout the collection process. Also known as “fully commingled.”

Sustainable: A characteristic of a process or product that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely. In the context of recycling and consumer choices, the term refers to the relationship of a service or product’s design to various systems on which we all depend. A sustainable relationship maintains the balance of ecology (interconnected systems such as agriculture, forestry, etc, and human communities). Needs can be met not only in the present, but also for future generations.

Upcycling: Process of converting waste- industrial or otherwise materials thought of as useless- into something of greater value. Example: They just upcycled this old milk carton plate into a charming coin purse. Places like Uncommon Goods have amazing upcycled products that are handmade and one-of-a-kind.

Virgin Materials: Previously unprocessed materials. For example, when we use a tree that is cut into lumber to make pallets, the tree is a virgin material. This is in contrast to if lumber is recovered from broken pallets to make new pallets- the lumber is not a virgin material but a recyclable material. Also called virgin resources.

Waste Reduction: Process of reducing waste material and energy in manufacturing, use, and disposal by recycling, sustainable design, or closed-loop supply chains.

Waste Stream: Flow or movement of wastes from the point of generation (houses, businesses) to final disposal (landfills or incineration). A waste stream may reduce significantly over time as valuable items are separated for recycling and are recovered.

Zero Waste: A goal to develop products and services while eliminating the volume and toxicity of waste and materials and conserve and recover all resources. This can be achieved by managing the use of our stuff and creating recycling systems and markets. Anything that’s toxic to the health of people, animals, plants, water, land or air is eliminated. Cities, companies and individuals can set zero-waste goals.

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