1630s, "capable of shaping or molding a mass of matter," from Latin plasticus, from Greek plastikos "fit for molding, capable of being molded into various forms; pertaining to molding," also in reference to the arts, from plastos "molded, formed," verbal adjective from plassein "to mold" (see plasma). Related: Plastically.

Hence "capable of change or of receiving a new direction" (1791). The surgical sense of "remedying a deficiency of structure" is recorded by 1839 (in plastic surgery). Meaning "made of plastic" is from 1909; this was picked up in counterculture slang and given an extended meaning "false, superficial" (1963). Plastic explosive (n.) "explosive material with a putty-like consistency" is attested from 1894.

Caution: Watch for word-shifting as it happens — and the legal consequences (& protections) that come with the term. For example "manufacturing" vs. "recycling" shifted the territory for considering "Advanced Recycling (Advanced Recycling-NOT!), and it sounds like it's about to happen again with EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility). It appears "plastic" terminology is plastic!

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”   W.S., 1597 or so


Product Stewardship

All parties in a product life cycle—manufacturers, retailers, users and waste managers—share responsibility and costs for reducing the adverse environmental impacts of products. From a solid waste management perspective, Product Stewardship involves the actions taken to improve the design and manufacture of products to facilitate either their reuse, recycling or disposal, as well as actions to establish programs to collect, process and reuse or recycle products when they are discarded.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

A policy tool making producers legally and financially responsible for mitigating the environmental impacts of their products and packaging.


Resource Recovery

Recovery rather than disposal of recyclable materials or energy from solid waste, encompassing recycling, reuse, composting and energy recovery.


In the United States, recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials (that would otherwise be thrown away as trash) and remanufacturing them into new products.


The act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. In doing so, the finished product often becomes more practical, valuable and beautiful than what it previously was.


The term used to describe a recycled product that is not as structurally strong as the original product made from virgin materials. Downcycled materials can therefore only be used to make a different type of product than the original.

Advanced/Chemical Recycling

Mechanical v. Chemical Recycling

Chemical recycling splits polymer chains and supplies products such as crude oil, naphtha, or fuels. Mechanical recycling preserves the molecular structure. It mechanically crushes the plastic and remelts it into granulate. This granulate is then used to make new plastic products.


One of the ways to chemically recycle plastic waste. In this process, mixed plastic waste is broken down into oil- or gas-like feedstock (raw materials) that is then used to produce chemicals including plastics.


One of the ways to chemically recycle plastic waste. In this process, sorted plastic waste is broken down into monomers (basic building blocks) to feed them back into the plastic production.


is the thermal decomposition of organic material at high temperatures in an inert atmosphere. By heating plastic to over 450 ° C in the absence of oxygen, pyrolysis breaks molecular chains to transform plastic waste back into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons. 


Uses solvents to separate polymers from additives or contaminants. Unlike other types of chemical recycling, purification does not break or modify the polymer. Purification may be used with mixed or sorted plastics. 


As applied to plastics wastes, solvolysis includes depolymerization processes such as alcoholysis, hydrolysis, acidolysis, aminolysis and various interchange reactions that produce oligomers or monomers. Solvolytic techniques fall under the categories of chemical or tertiary recycling options.


A process that converts organic or fossil-based carbonaceous materials at high temperatures (>700°C), without combustion, with a controlled amount of oxygen and/or steam into carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide.

Chemicals of Concern

Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Xylene (BTEX)

The acronym used for compounds typically found in petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel.

Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

Any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, that participate in reactions of radiant energy, especially light, in the atmosphere.


PPM: parts per million = milligrams per liter

PPB: parts per billion

PPT: parts per trillion

EIS:  Environmental Impact Statement

GWP:  Global Warming Potential

MSDS:  Material Safety Data Sheet

OSHA:  Occupational Safety and Health Administration

ESG: Environmental, Social, Governance


Greenhouse Gas (GHG)

Any gas that absorbs infrared radiation in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), ozone (O3 ), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).


A form of corporate misrepresentation where a company will present a green public image and publicize green initiatives that are false or misleading.

Solid Waste

Zero Waste

Efforts to reduce solid waste generation waste to nothing, or as close to nothing as possible, by minimizing excess consumption and maximizing the recovery of solid wastes through recycling and composting.

Solid Waste

Non-liquid, non-soluble materials ranging from municipal garbage to industrial wastes that contain complex and sometimes hazardous substances. Solid wastes also include sewage sludge, agricultural refuse, demolition wastes, and mining residues.

Waste Diversion

The prevention and reduction of generated waste through source reduction, recycling, reuse and composting. Waste diversion generates a host of environmental, financial and social benefits, including conserving energy, reducing disposal costs, and reducing the burden on landfills and other waste disposal methods.

Source Reduction

Actions taken to reduce solid waste toxicity or disposal, including (1) manufacturers’ redesign and management of products and packaging to extend product life, and facilitating repair, (2) consumers’ reduced purchase and consumption of products that become wastes; and (3) manufacturers’ and consumers’ reuse of products.

Waste Reduction

Anything that reduces waste by using less material in the first place. Reducing waste can be as simple as using both sides of a sheet of paper, using ceramic mugs instead of disposable cups, or buying in bulk rather than individually packaged items.

Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM)

Environmentally and economically sound, systematic approach to solid waste handling that combines source reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, energy recovery, collection, transfer, transport and disposal in sanitary landfills, solid waste combustors or other solid waste disposal and processing facilities in order to conserve and recover resources and dispose of solid waste in a manner that protects human health and the environment.


Generic term for an enclosed unit that burns Solid Waste, sometimes without energy recovery.

C&D Debris

Materials resulting from the construction and demolition (C&D) of buildings and other structures, including materials such as metals, wood, gypsum, asphalt shingles, roofing, concrete, rocks, rubble, soil, paper, plastics and glass, but excluding putrescible wastes.

Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)

Building where commingled recyclables are separated and processed (including sorting, baling and crushing) or where source separated recyclables are processed for sale to various markets.

Hazardous Waste (HW) 

By-products of society that can pose a substantial or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly managed. Hazardous waste possesses at least one of four characteristics -- ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity.

Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) 

Hazardous products used and disposed of by residential consumers. Those products include paints, stains, varnishes, solvents, pesticides, and other materials or products containing volatile chemicals that can catch fire, react or explode, or that are corrosive or toxic.

Bio Labels


Describes waste materials capable of being biologically decomposed by microorganisms and bacteria. For example, organic wastes such as paper, wood, food and plants are biodegradable; metals, glass and most plastics are not.


All plastic is degradable, even traditional plastic, but just because it can be broken down into tiny fragments or powder does not mean the materials will ever return to nature. Some additives to traditional plastics make them degrade more quickly. Photodegradable plastic breaks down more readily in sunlight; oxo-degradable plastic disintegrates more quickly when exposed to heat and light.


Compostable is used to describe a product that can disintegrate into non-toxic, natural elements. It also does so at a rate consistent with similar organic materials. Compostable products require microorganisms, humidity, and heat to yield a finished compost product (CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass). Not all products marked compostable will actually compost at home. Some require industrial composting.

Anaerobic Digestion

A process through which bacteria break down organic matter—such as animal manure, wastewater biosolids, and food wastes—in the absence of oxygen.


Biomass is renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals. Biomass sources for energy include:


Polyhyroxyalkanoates, are bio-derived polymers that are biodegradable at end of life (EOL). They are also referred to as natural polyesters.

Though bioplastics isn’t a new term, it’s important to remember that it can still be used to refer to polymers manufactured from fossil fuels, or bio-based alternatives that cannot be considered biodegradable. In short, by being bio-derived AND biodegradable and compostable, PHA is a commercially viable polyester that offers a genuinely environmentally motivated alternative to pollution-producing plastics.


stands for polylactic acid and is a bio-sourced plastic made from plant extracts like sugarcane and corn. This means it’s made of renewable resources, which makes it a more natural alternative to fossil fuels. PLA is also carbon-neutral, edible and biodegradable, meaning it can completely break down in the right environment rather than crumble into harmful microplastics. Because it can decompose, it's commonly used as a material in composting packaging, food packaging like cups, plates and cutlery and loose-fill packaging.


A bioplastic can be defined as a polymer (synthetic polymers = plastics) that is manufactured into a commercial product from a natural source or renewable resource.


Regrettable Substitution & Precautionary Principle

When chemicals are assessed and regulated individually, the ones found to be hazardous might be replaced with structurally similar or other substances that currently lack safety data but may be just as (or more) hazardous than the original. This change from a known hazardous to not-yet-known hazardous substance is called a ‘regrettable substitution’. To avoid this, the precautionary principle can be applied, which assumes no new substance is safe until enough data is made available to ensure it is.

Resin Identification Code (RIC)

A number-based coding system placed on plastics to identify the polymer for purposes of recycling; the code/symbol does not necessarily mean the packaging can be recycled.

#1 – polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
#2 – high density polyethylene (HDPE)
#3 – polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
#4 – low density polyethylene
#5 – polypropylene (PP)
#6 – polystyrene (PS)
#7 – other (mixed plastic)


is sometimes used interchangeably with reusable but it can also include returning packages or components for other than reuse: recycling, disposal, incineration, etc. Typically, the materials used to make returnable packaging include steel, wood, polypropylene sheets or other plastic materials.[2]

Reusable Packaging*

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition defines reusable packaging as packaging that allows either the business or the consumer to put the same type of purchased product back into the original packaging, is designed to be returnable and/or refillable, and accomplishes a minimum number of reuses by being part of a system that enables reuse. 

* Returnable-reusable vs. Refillable

You can see in the definition above that the Sustainable Packaging Coalition defines reusable packaging as "designed to be returnable and/or refillable." Upstream feels that when policy is written, there is a need for specific, separate definitions of what is "returnable" and what is "refillable."

Returnable-Reusable Packaging is designed to be recirculated multiple times for the same or similar purpose in its original format in a system for reuse, and is owned by producers or a third party and returned to producers or a third party after each use. We say "returnable-reusable" to avoid confusion with other types of returnables, like returnable cans in a bottle bill system, which are returnable, but not reusable.

Refillable Packaging is designed to be refilled by consumers multiple times for the same or similar purpose in its original format, and is sold or provided to consumers once for the duration of its usable life.

The main point: refillable packaging is owned by consumers while reusable packaging is owned by producers or a third party. Refillables, like BYO or refill at home, require a lot of consumer behavior change. Returnables eliminate the challenges of refillable packaging because they can mimic single-use packaging. 1