Waste and Recycling – What does it all mean?

At Circular Seed we often get questions or about waste and recycling that indicate to us that there is widespread confusion about waste and recycling terminology. We’ve tried to decipher some of the most commonly mis-used or mis-understood terms here.


According to the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (WA) waste includes matter, whether liquid, solid, gaseous or radioactive and whether useful or useless, which is discharged into the environment; or prescribed to be waste. For the rest of us, this means any type of material in any physical form (useful or useless) that is no longer wanted by its owner for its original purpose. “But waste should be considered a valuable resource!” I hear you cry. That might be true, but the value is in the eye of the user or buyer. This definition of waste means that material or thing becomes a waste as soon as its owner has no further use for it.

Waste recovery:

The act of doing something with a waste material other than sending it to a landfill. If waste is sent to any other process or uses other than a landfill, it is considered “recovered”. Note that waste recovery is not the same as recycling until it results in the waste being processed into something new.


The act of turning waste material into a useable product. Example: timber pallets shredded into animal bedding, organic waste processed into compost, plastic waste ground down and made into pellets. If material is exported without being processed (separation and baling do not count as processing), it is not recycled until it has been processed at its destination.


A term indicating that material or thing can be recycled. The problem with this term is that nearly everything can be recycled if the facilities exist to process it and the market exists to buy the processed (recycled) product. In Western Australia, we lack recycling infrastructure, markets for recycled products and manufacturers that can make recycled material into new products. This means that fewer items are actually recyclable. Some of the items that are recovered locally and recycled (usually elsewhere) include Glass, plastic and aluminium drink containers, some hard plastics (e.g. PET, HDPE, LDPE, PP), some soft plastics via RedCycle collections in supermarkets, scrap metals, commercial and domestic food waste via composting and a small volume of tyres. Our recycling rates for different materials varies widely across this group.

Recycled content:

This means a product contains at least some re-processed waste material. This could mean post-industrial material or post-consumer material. Post-industrial recycled material is easier to use and more common than post-consumer recycled material because the waste streams are cleaner and tend to be less contaminated. Note that a product made from recycled material can not necessarily be recycled again.


The act of using a material again, usually for the same purpose (e.g. pallets that are used for shipping and deliveries again and again) or for a different purpose but without processing it into a new form (e.g. jam jars used as drinking cups).

Re-useable timber pallets (Photo: Hayley Rolfe)
Re-useable timber pallets (Photo: Hayley Rolfe)


The ability of a product or thing to break down or decompose by the action of microbial activity into natural substances. Organic waste is biodegradable.


The ability of a product to break down, but not necessarily into natural substances. Synthetic materials often degrade when exposed to wind, salt and sun. Unfortunately, these materials tend to break up into smaller pieces (e.g. microplastics) rather than breaking down into natural substances.


The ability of a product to break down into organic matter that can be added safely to the soil. There are two Australian Standards for compostable packaging: AS 4736-2006 for material that can be composted in commercial composting conditions and AS5810-2010 for material that will break down in a home composting environment. Most compostable plastics will break down in a commercial composting facility but not a home compost system. Compostable plastics will not break down in the environment. There is a good CSIRO article about compostable plastics here.

Commercial MAF composting system (Photo: MAF-compostingsystems.de)
Commercial MAF composting system (Photo: MAF-compostingsystems.de)

Plant-based plastic/bio-plastic:

Refers to the oil used to make plastic. Plastic made from plant-derived oil is the same as plastic made from hydrocarbon oil and they behave the same way in the environment. A plant-based plastic is not necessarily bio-degradable or compostable and may or may not be a more environmentally friendly alternative to standard hydrocarbon-based plastic. Some bioplastics are designed to be compostable but look for one of the Australian Standards for compostable packaging before you believe it.

Questions? If there is a waste or recycling term you’d like us to explain or you have a question about waste management in Western Australia, get in touch with us. We’re happy to help!

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