After researching sustainable face masks for the past few weeks there are many brands that use the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’, but they often don’t clarify what exactly these terms mean and consumers assume that they can be used interchangeably. Along with this confusing language, brands deem masks and other products ‘biodegradable’ but often lack instructions on how to properly dispose of the products so that they don’t end up in the landfill unable to break down like they were designed for. It’s up to big brands to start clarifying the sustainability of their products and consumers to learn more about what they are buying. By clearing up what trendy words like ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ mean we can begin buying and manufacturing products that truly are sustainable, not just ones that claim to be.

Compostable items biodegrade but with added benefits  
Products that are compostable are able to break down as long as they are under the right conditions. This includes items like food, paper-based or wood-based. For the beauty industry, there are many paper-based packaging that is labeled compostable because it can break down. Once compostable items do break down they leave behind nutrients in the soil and environment. But oftentimes products that are labeled compostable need to be sent to an industrial facility to be processed under perfect conditions. These types of products and packaging are rarely sent to the proper facility and enter landfills with other waste. When purchasing compostable products be sure to check if they are ‘at-home’ compostable or ‘commercially compostable’.

Biodegradable items can be decomposed into base elements by bacteria, fungi, or other natural processes

Many things can be biodegradable, even plastics, so that doesn’t mean the term is always a good thing. When things are labeled as biodegradable they will break down, but will emit a lot of greenhouse gases while doing so. Items can biodegrade in landfills, but won’t always be able to if they don’t have the proper bacteria, temperature, and sunlight conditions, and landfills are meant to keep out all of these things so that garbage doesn’t break down quickly. In the beauty industry brands use these terms loosely, and consumers are being ‘greenwashed’ into thinking they're being more environmentally friendly, but in reality biodegradable products aren’t helping our planet.

So how are they different?

The main difference between biodegradable and compostable is the conditions needed for the product to break down properly Compostable products will break down easily no matter the environmental factors. Biodegradable products need perfect conditions, and can sometimes take years to break down and release toxins while doing so. The term biodegradable is not regulated in the beauty industry, so brands can term their products as biodegradable without having to test for it. Either of these options can be better than typical plastics, but it’s important to buy what works best for your environment and area. If buying bioplastic compostable be sure there is a facility nearby for your product to go.