Compostable vs Biodegradable Packaging. Explained.

I am not plastic bag compostable biodegradable bag

When we discuss ‘sustainable’ packaging, the beauty industry is often at the forefront of this conversation. This is because the plastic tubes and tubs that contain our sunscreens, lotions and potions, are most definitely bad for the environment. Many brands have been trying to innovate away from such packaging to more earth friendly options. However as you’ll discover, the grass isn’t always greener, or more easy to dispose of. 

You may have heard the words ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ thrown around a lot recently. More and more beauty and skincare brands are using them to describe their ‘sustainable’ packaging. However, sometimes the words are used incorrectly, often interchangeably, when in reality, they mean very different things.

So let’s break it down, if you’ll pardon the pun. 



  1. A substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms



  1. Something that can be used as compost when it decays or is the process of recycling organic waste for reuse.

Most things are biodegradable, since over time, they are decomposed. However the result of this breakdown isn’t always good for the environment. A plastic tube for example will break down, but into smaller pieces of plastic, causing problems for wildlife and off gassing harmful substances into the soil. For something to be properly biodegradable, it should break down into organic matter. This can take anywhere between 3 months and hundreds of years.

Compost Heap Home

By comparison, when something is compostable, it breaks down into something nutrient and beneficial to the environment. Nature is incredibly clever, and has ensured that when organic matter breaks down, it provides much needed nutrients used to maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem. Compostable materials are made of organic matter like cardboard. When carried out correctly, items can break down in a matter of months. However in order for this to happen, the conditions have to be just right. But more on that later. 

With all this in mind, when you are on the lookout for beauty and skincare products, it’s worth taking a little more time to examine a brand's claims around how it’s packaging can be disposed of. For instance, did you know that your home compost and an industrial compost are very different? When something is ‘home compostable’ it generally means that it will break down thoroughly using only the natural heat generated by a healthy, oxygenated compost heap. However some items should be composted in an industrial compost centre where higher temperatures are generated. 


Similarly it’s important not to throw compostable or biodegradable items into your bin as the conditions in landfill will not activate composting. Densely packed landfill sites are typically anaerobic, meaning they are oxygen free. Items that would otherwise breakdown are left in plastic trash bags for years and years without access to enough heat or oxygen to properly break down. 

If all of this seems a bit long winded and complicated, you're right, it is. But being eco aware isn’t easy, especially in an environment where brands use greenwashing tactics to jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, we cannot simply rely on a brand's claims of a ‘biodegradable plastic bottle’ without the specific evidence to back this up. As well as clear guidelines as to how you should dispose of something responsibly. 

In order to make buying biodegradable or compostable packaged products worth your time, you need to do your research to see whether you can actually dispose of it correctly. Maybe you don’t have a home compost, or your council won’t take biodegradable bio plastics, usually derived from corn. FSC certified cardboard is an all around good bet as this will definitely break down in compost and can also be recycled.

However, in order to avoid all of this hassle, and avoid filling up your trash can with unnecessary waste, refilling has got to be the answer. Refilling removes the need to create more new packaging. Whether something is biodegradable, compostable, or will live on forever, it requires energy and resources to make it. By refilling your skincare and household cleaning products, you are lessening your impact in a big way. 

By Lucy Kebbell

Lucy is the Founder of The Vendeur, and is a sustainable fashion and eco beauty nut. Her new platform The WIP aims to support eco aware brands on their journey to sustainable growth. Follow the launch by subscribing and be the first to know about their Kickstarter campaign and how you can help. 

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