Those three terms are the most used by marketers to demonstrate that their products are Earth-friendly. But using “green” words does not necessarily make an item green in practice, because there’s frequently a difference between what a marketer intends and what happens to a product in real world use.
Let’s start with “biodegradable.” The implication is that the item will decompose, returning to the earth and becoming part of the ecosystem without causing harm. But, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information blog, while that may be true, it won’t happen in an “earth-friendly” way if that item goes to a landfill.
That’s because landfills are designed to shut out sunlight, air and moisture, which slows down the rate of decomposition. Even plain paper and organic items such as food could take decades to decompose in that environment. So “biodegradable” isn’t necessarily a good thing if the item isn’t recycled to avoid landfills.
Many people think that “recyclable”, without or without the recycling symbol, means that anyone can recycle the item easily. But even if an item is made of 100% recyclable materials, you may not be able to recycle it, as anyone who has tried to safely dispose of appliances or batteries, knows. You need to check with your waste hauler or local government to know for sure if an item will, or can, be recycled.
“Earth Smart” is another term the FTC warns about. It’s used a lot, by a lot of different companies, but means nothing by itself. The package needs more specific information before you can know whether the product is good or bad for the environment.
There are lot of other green terms that business use, and the FTC has published a series of Green Guides that set standards for truth in green advertising they must follow. You can get a summary of the guides here.