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What is the difference between the spanish words "residuo" and "desecho"?

I'm trying to read a document about waste streams in Spanish, and it has a section titled Residuo y/o Desecho

Google translates both to "waste", but obviously the document considers them different types of waste.

Residuo y/o Desecho

La basura es sinónimo de residuos sólidos municipales y de desechos sólidos (FAO, 2003). Sin embargo, para dar una mejor gestión a los materiales, cada término ha adquirido significados puntuales por parte de la FAO y, a nivel nacional, por parte del Acuerdo Ministerial N° 061.

De acuerdo a la FAO (2003), los residuos son todos aquellos materiales que se encuentran en cualquier estado (sólido, líquido o gaseoso), resultante de un proceso de extracción de la naturaleza para uso, consumo, o producción del ser humano, al que su beneficiario ha decidido abandonar.

Por su parte, el Acuerdo Ministerial N° 061 del Ministerio del Ambiente (2015), define a los desechos como sustancias o materiales, resultantes de un proceso de producción, transformación, reciclaje, utilización o consumo, que ya no poseen características físicas apropiadas para un tratamiento de valorización

I tried translating the contents of the section, but the differences are still unintelligible to me.

How does "residuo" waste differ from "desecho" waste?

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  • municipal solid waste [trash, garbage US, rubbish, UK] and solid waste agrovoc.fao.org/browse/agrovoc/en/page/c_7228?clang=es desecho sólido=solid waste. It depends, sometimes the same (as a major category), sometimes not: for example, crop residues are residuos agrarios [Spain] But residuos domesiticos: are household waste. Does that make sense? You have to check Spanish legislation and try to match it up with English or American texts. medioambiente.jcyl.es/web/es/calidad-ambiental/… It gets quite complicated.
    – Lambie
    Apr 14 at 21:29
  • Se explican las diferencias entre las dos palabras en las entradas respectivas del diccionario de la RAE (dle.rae.es/desecho?m=form y dle.rae.es/residuo?m=form). Apr 15 at 11:32
  • According to the language of the definitions, «residuos» are "any and all such materials in any state whatsoever that result from an extractive process for use, consumption or production of human beings and whose beneficiary has decided to leave over." That is, «residuos» are left-overs you've decided to throw away. «Desechos», on the other hand, are non-useful "remainders resulting from a process of production, transformation, recycling, use or consumption that don't have any appropriate value." That is, «desechos» are garbage you don't have any use for. Apr 15 at 14:49
  • 2
    One-word translations that might help: Desecho is a general word for waste, while residuo is a by-product. Some by-products are useful, like how wood shavings or sawdust can be repurposed for pet bedding or mulch. Waste has no usefulness left, and is something only to be disposed of. In the section you quoted, ya no poseen características físicas apropiadas para un tratamiento de valorización: they no longer possess valuable characteristics
    – automaton
    Apr 15 at 21:29

4 Answers 4

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From what I understand from each description, the main difference is:

Residuo: can be reused

Desecho: it can no longer be used, it's garbage

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Agreeing with other answers, they are partial synonyms, far from being interchangeable in general.

A residue is a sub-product, a leftover, a remainder of some process.

Garbage as something we dispose of, something we get rid of.

We may have a residue (residuo) that is not garbage (desecho), it may be valuable, recycled or used for a different purpose, likewise, not all garbage is a residue, it may be a produce (of really bad quality), in fact, what is garbage to someone may be a treasure for someone else.

Tip: Do not confuse desecho with deshecho!

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The specific use is explained in the text you quote:

De acuerdo a la FAO (2003), los residuos son todos aquellos materiales que se encuentran en cualquier estado (sólido, líquido o gaseoso), resultante de un proceso de extracción de la naturaleza para uso, consumo, o producción del ser humano, al que su beneficiario ha decidido abandonar.

My own, not very good, translation:

"According to FAO (2003), residuos are all those materials, found in any state (solid, liquid or gas), which have been extracted from nature and were intended for human use, consumption, or manufacturing [processes], which have been abandoned by their intended beneficiary.

So, residuos is limited to materials that were originally intended to be used or consumed by humans. On the other hand, desechos are defined as:

Por su parte, el Acuerdo Ministerial N° 061 del Ministerio del Ambiente (2015), define a los desechos como sustancias o materiales, resultantes de un proceso de producción, transformación, reciclaje, utilización o consumo, que ya no poseen características físicas apropiadas para un tratamiento de valorización

My, equally bad, translation:

Ministerial accord N° 061 of the Environment Ministry, for its part, defines desechos as substances or materials resulting from processes of production, transformation, recycling, use or consumption which no longer possess appropriate physical characteristics allowing them to be treated and used.

All this to say that the difference in meaning between these two words isn't so much linguistic as it is bureaucratic and they are apparently used to describe different categories of waste in legal and/or administrative contexts.

The main difference does indeed seem to be that desechos are unsalvageable garbage while residuos can also cover things that can still be used. The text also seems to limit residuos to things that have been extracted from nature, so presumably would exclude the wasteproducts of most human industries. The definition you provided of residuos does not necessitate that residuos be usable, but it does permit it, while the definition of desechos does require that they be useless, so presumably, residuos would be used for cases where they are not.

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According to the DRAE there is no difference, they are synonyms

residuo
3. m. Material que queda como inservible después de haber realizado un trabajo u operación. U. m. en pl.

Sin.: restos, sobras, despojos, desecho, desperdicio, basura, escombro, morralla, escurriduras.

As far as I can see, the main difference that appears in the cited text is that desechos are the ones that ya no poseen características físicas apropiadas para un tratamiento de valorización. Whatever that means.

Independently of any opinion expressed here, in this site, the exact meaning and scope of that sentence depends on the Ministry. In case of conflict or doubt, a bureaucrat would decide. Interpreting national and international laws is way beyond the scope of this site.

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  • I disagree with the first part. "Synonym" doesn't mean that two words mean exactly the same thing, and there are usually subtle differences between them
    – automaton
    Apr 15 at 21:05
  • @automaton Did you check both words in the DRAE? I don't get the purpose of your comment. What are those subtle differences in this case? Apart from the quoted sentence whose meaning is totally unclear.
    – RubioRic
    Apr 16 at 4:37
  • I agree with @automaton. Two words are synonyms if they can be used interchangeably in some contexts, but this does not mean that they can be always exchanged, or that there are no differences at all between them. A residuo can sometimes be useless, in which case it can also be considered a desecho, but sometimes it can be reused or recycled in a different way.
    – Gorpik
    Apr 16 at 8:52
  • @Gorpik That's your opinion. Both words are marked as synonyms in the DRAE. That's a fact and that's what I put in my answer. Instead of commenting here you should create your own answer and include examples from different sources to back-up your opinion.
    – RubioRic
    Apr 16 at 9:03
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    @RubioRic The purpose of my comment is to say there is a difference between the two, where you say there is not. Three other answers and multiple comments say more or less the same thing about what the differences are, so I don't feel the need to repeat that here. As far as the DRAE is concerned, it has ten different definitions between the two words, most of which they do not mark as synonyms. Regardless, synonym does not mean that two things are exactly equivalent.
    – automaton
    Apr 16 at 20:48

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