What’s the difference between the terms biodegradable and compostable?

The terms biodegradable and compostable are often used in tandem or interchanged and used incorrectly.  Don’t worry, it’s only a few years ago when we launched our toothbrush, that I found out they actually meant two very different things.


Ah, the term of all terms eh.  ‘Is it biodegradable’ is something I’ve heard thousands of times.  Which, is a bit of a misnomer you see, because everything is biodegradable.  Where you are sitting now, everything around you is biodegradable.  From the clothes you wear to chair you are sitting on or the car you drive.  Everything degrades.  Everything breaks down.  Everything will go back into the earth.

It’s the when will it happen that is key.  It could be anything as little as a few days to hundreds or even thousands of years.  You’ve all seen the meme’s on socials where it rates each item and how long it’ll take to break down.  Plastic often being the main culprit.

All items biodegrade, however, how they degrade is open to debate and the type of contamination they put into the earth and world around us varies as well.  Something that biodegrades does not however, feed the earth.  I’ll probably break down into tiny pieces that disappear to the naked eye.   Think microplastics.

So whilst something that breaks down is good, to potentially contaminate the earth is not so good.

The term biodegradable, when used incorrectly, much like the term ‘zero waste’ can be misleading and even be labelled as green washing.


Now, here’s the one.  The one that everyone should be asking.  Is it compostable?

Compostable items will break down into the earth leaving no toxicity and often feeding the earth as it goes.  Simple.

However, for a material to compost, it needs three things.  Moisture, heat and oxygen.  We may think that compostable items that we throw in our general waste will compost in landfill.  I’m afraid this is often not the case.  There is not enough oxygen when the items are underneath all the rubbish in a landfill site.  Heat and moisture possibly but again, optimal conditions are needed with these too. 

That’s why home composting is so wonderful.  It’s not hard to create the perfect conditions!

So, compostable all day every day.  Biodegradable, mmm… the jury is still out but compostability is where it’s at.

My overall thoughts

Bear with me, it’ll make sense I’m sure.

In 1842 Julius Robert Mayer discovered the Law of Conservation of Energy, now called The First Law of Thermodynamics – Energy is neither created nor destroyed.

It simply changes it state.  Energy is in a closed loop, however, as the universe is continually expanding (yeah you didn’t realise this blog would be about space and time eh?!) gravitational potential energy is released so does this mean that more energy is created as the universe expands? thus we are creating and using more energy even given the rule of The First Law of Thermodynamics? 

Well, even with all the reading I do on this subject I’m not a Physicist or Scientist in any form, however, there is no denying that huge amounts of energy are used in creating product, creating packaging.  Then we chuck it in the recycling where it maybe does or doesn’t get recycled into something else – it’s pot luck with each council recycling scheme right? – which again, uses energy, but then creates something else from potential waste matter instead of another resource so that’s overall quite good.

To have more items that are compostable is seen as good, but again in another respect, bad because of the energy used to create, isn’t it better to reuse something many times instead of just allowing it compost? but then it’s potentially feeding the earth?! 

arghhh…. there truly is sometimes no right or wrong in this crazy quest for sustainability.   

Single use items should be able to be composted, reusable items (of which most items are) should be reused to within an inch of their life before they are recycled.

My rule of thumb when it comes to our products is;

  • Our toothbrushes, reuse them for crafts, cleaning items or use them for children’s painting before you remove the bristles for recycling and compost the handle.
  • We have made our cotton bud packaging as sturdy and visually pleasing as possible so it can be reused to house items such as pens in a home office, make up brushes or even our toothbrushes on a bathroom shelf. 
  • Our floss glass packaging is reusable.
  • All of our cardboard packaging can be composted.

When it comes to other products that you have;

  • If you have glass pots or tubs please reuse them as much as possible before putting them in the recycling.  Cosmetics housed in glass are very heavy so have a higher carbon footprint to alternative packaging (yes I also include plastic in this assessment)
  • If you have plastic packaging, please note that not all plastics are created equal.  Some are far superior than others, being able to be recycled many times or in the case of bioplastics, they have a super low carbon footprint, can be recycled many times, do not use fossil fuels in their manufacture and are made up of waste product from the food industry such as sugar cane.  Bioplastics are also compostable but they are not in a conventional setting so would need to be composted industrially, which isn’t available in most council boroughs.  I’m hoping to see an increase in this though given the increase in use of bioplastics.
  • With any cosmetic packaging, make sure you have cleaned out the inside thoroughly, get rid of any cosmetic residue.  If you have a plastic tube cut the top and use up the product yourself inside and out, you’ll be amazed at how much product sticks in there.  Council recycling schemes will not accept any cosmetic packaging that is not perfectly clean so an extremely high percentage of what we chuck in the recycling gets put into landfill.  Sadly.

Reduce our consumption.
Reuse what we’ve got.
Recycle what is left.

The eagle eyed of you will notice that most of our product packaging says biodegradable, this was very very silly and uneducated of me when we launched and I missed it when we remanufactured and printed. We will be changing this in our newer packaging to ‘compostable’ but we do have a lot of stock to get through until then.  So please don’t hold it against us 🙂

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog, any comments please leave them below.

Jayne Clark-Denyer
Founder of Organically Epic
Lover of Cosmetics
Forever learning and evolving

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