Two Times “Biodegradable” Doesn’t Actually Mean Biodegradable

updated Apr 16, 2021
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Biodegradable eco-friendly hygiene items: toothbrush, floss, comb, loofah sponge, wooden ear sticks, soap.
Credit: Kyttan/Shutterstock

So, you want to do your part to protect the planet. Amazing! Swapping out your usual home products for biodegradable ones could be a good way to make sure you don’t contribute to trash piling up in landfills and emitting harmful greenhouse gases. But, as with any step you take toward sustainability, it’s important to do some research up front. 

If you don’t follow the right steps, your well-intentioned eco-friendly efforts could have the opposite effect. Just because something is labeled “biodegradable” doesn’t mean it’ll actually biodegrade. Whether an item breaks down in the earth depends on how you get rid of the product, and what’s actually in it. 

If you’re buying bamboo toothbrushes and dishcloths to help the planet, here are a few things you should know to make sure your eco-friendly intentions actually help the environment.

Nothing biodegrades in a bagged trash bin.

The first thing to know? Nothing organic will biodegrade — from a potato peel to your bamboo toothbrush — if you throw it away in a plastic trash bag. According to Maia McGuire, PhD, an associate program leader for Marine and Coastal Extension at the University of Florida, organic matter can only biodegrade in the presence of two important ingredients: oxygen and moisture. 

That means if you throw away your bamboo toothbrush or a piece of “biodegradable packaging” in a plastic garbage bag and send it away with your weekly trash haul, it’ll probably stay in the landfill forever. “Enclosing trash in a plastic bag means you’re not going to get enough oxygen or moisture,” she says. “I’ve read that people dug up a landfill and found a completely recognizable McDonald’s hamburger with a receipt that was more than 30 years old.”

If you don’t compost at all then, unfortunately, there’s really no value in buying biodegradable products. “In that case, you’re sadly wasting money,” McGuire says. You can still do your part to help the planet thrive — buy only what you need, limit your plastics, and do your best to recycle actually recyclable products.

Credit: Aleksandra Suzi/Shutterstock

Some biodegradable things won’t decompose through home composting.

Composting at home (with a worm farm, a tumbling composter, or just a simple pile) is a better bet, but that’s not an eco-friendly guarantee, either. According to McGuire, basically, any product can say “biodegradable” or “compostable.” To certify a product as either of those things, companies simply have to demonstrate that a certain percentage of an item will biodegrade within a certain period of time — and in a commercial or industrial composting facility, not your backyard.

McGuire says industrial facilities use high heat to decompose organic matter, and odds are, your backyard won’t ever reach the same temperature. Practically, that means there’s no guarantee your “eco-friendly” home essentials will actually fully decompose at home, especially if they have components that aren’t easily biodegradable.

To find out how “compostable” something is, McGuire recommends reading the ingredients to make sure they don’t contain plastics. Bioplastics like Bio-PET, cellulose acetate, and PLA plastic are some materials that are often labeled as compostable, but can’t easily be broken down outside of industrial facilities (this resource might help if you want to learn more).

McGuire suggests reserving your home compost pile for food waste and items you’re absolutely sure are fully compostable — for example, you can tear up a cellulose-based clamshell container with no plastic components or totally plant-based face wipes. In the case of the bamboo toothbrush, even though it’s organic, McGuire says bamboo is quite dense and won’t compost easily in home environments.

To ensure that your biodegradable swaps actually complete the zero-waste cycle, collect your food waste and other compost in a bin, then turn it over to a commercial composting facility. There’s likely a compost service where you live that will do home pick-ups for a fee. Or locate an organic waste bin near you — local parks and businesses may have compost collection bins available to the public.