Do biodegradable wipes decompose in landfill?

Posted by Lisa on December 19, 2022
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    Biodegradable wipes are a great innovation in the fight against plastic waste. But do they work? And how long does it take for them to break down? We answer these questions, and more.

    Wipes are labeled as biodegradable if they disintegrate into the environment within days or months, respectively.

    Biodegradable wipes can be divided into two categories: those that break down within a few days, and those where the process takes a few months. This is because there are two types of biodegradable materials – one which breaks down quickly, and one which takes longer to break down.

    The time it takes for a wipe to decompose depends on the material it is made from. For example, a wipe made from bamboo fiber will take about two weeks to completely degrade in landfill conditions, whereas if you use cotton or wood pulp as your biodegradable material then you'll need more time (upwards of three months).

    Biodegradable wipes may be better for the environment than standard wet wipes but they still create problems in landfills.

    It's important to note that biodegradable wipes aren't as eco-friendly as you might think. Biodegradable wipes aren't actually compostable, meaning they can't be broken down by microorganisms in the soil like regular paper products. In fact, most of them are made with non-biodegradable materials and are too thick to break down on their own—so even if a landfill was filled with nothing but these wipes, it would still take years to decompose properly without the help of microorganisms in nature.

    Biodegradable wet wipes may be better for the environment than standard wet wipes because they'll eventually break down into smaller pieces after being thrown away—but only when they reach their final destination: landfills or wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs).

    There are standards for labelling wipes as ‘biodegradable’.

    Biodegradable wipes manufacturers have to follow guidelines set by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) in order to sell their products as ‘biodegradable’. These guidelines are not legally binding, but they ensure that consumers can trust the word ‘biodegradable’ on a product label.

    This means that any time you see this label, it will mean something. The BPI has set out criteria a product needs to meet before they can be labelled as such:

    • The material must break down into carbon dioxide and water within six months if left in an oxygen-free environment with half its original weight dispersed into soil; or
    • The materials should break down into carbon dioxide and water within two years at ambient temperature and pressure (25 degrees celsius).

    Put your wipes in the bin as soon as you have used them.

    Once you've used your wipes, don't flush them down the toilet. Don't put them in the compost. And definitely don't put them in your recycling bin or food waste bin.

    Biodegradable wipes are not perfect for the environment, but if you use them, please don’t flush them!

    While biodegradable wipes are better for the environment than conventional ones, they’re not perfect. Here’s why:

    • They don’t break down in a landfill. If you flush them down the toilet, they will get stuck in your septic tank and wreak havoc on its filters and processes.
    • If you don't have a bin at home, please don't put them in your trash bag for collection—they'll tear up when the collectors go through them, plus the bags can be punctured by sharp items like nails or pieces of glass (which we know many people try to throw out). Either way, biodegradable wipes won't break down easily and will end up clogging wastewater treatment plants instead of decomposing properly in landfills.

    The short answer is no, not really.

    Biodegradable products are designed to break down in the natural environment, but the conditions of landfills are not particularly healthy. Landfill sites are often poorly maintained and full of contaminants like heavy metals, which will poison any microbes that happen to be living in the waste. When you throw a biodegradable wipe into your trash can, it will have no access to oxygen or sunlight—the two conditions necessary for biological decomposition —and therefore won't fully break down in landfill conditions.

    Therefore, while they may technically be "biodegradable," the wipes still won't decompose inside your local dumpster either

    Landfills are extremely toxic environments.

    Landfills are extremely toxic environments. The landfill is full of toxic chemicals, including methane gas and leachate spilling out into the groundwater. There's also a lot of moisture in a landfill; this can create anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions that cause organic material to decompose in a way that produces harmful gases like hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and methane (which is flammable). A natural environment like a compost pile has microorganisms such as bacteria that break down organic matter into nutrients—in landfills there aren't any microorganisms left because they've been poisoned by the toxins released by other decomposing material.

    'Biodegradable' means different things to different manufacturers.

    Biodegradable is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but what does it actually mean?

    When you hear or read the term "biodegradable," what do you think of? Chances are your mind conjures an image of composting or recycling—both processes that help to break down organic materials like food scraps, yard clippings, and paper products. Biodegradable products are designed to dissolve quickly in water after use. This makes them ideal for disposing of disposable items such as baby wipes at home or away from home (on vacation), as well as other items like cotton swabs and tampons.

    Biodegradable means different things to different manufacturers. Some companies make products certified by independent third-party organizations like the Biodegradeable Products Institute (BPI) using strict requirements for biodegradation within six months in a commercial compost facility. Others make products labeled with vague terms like “compostable” or “degradable."

    Biodegradable wipes take a long time to decompose so they don't break down in the landfill.

    Biodegradable products may still leave behind microplastics

    Microplastics are small plastic particles that can be harmful to the environment. These tiny pieces of plastic can then enter the food chain, which means that we might end up eating them.

    Biodegradable products take a long time to decompose

    Even though biodegradable products break down into smaller particles, they do not always fully decompose in landfills. In fact, some take hundreds of years or more! This means they will still be there when your great-grandchildren visit the landfill to see what remains of our society…

    Biodegradable products may still leave microplastics behind.

    One of the main concerns about biodegradable products is that they can still leave microplastics behind. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that have broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, but are not entirely dissolved in water. They can be ingested by marine life and transferred up through the food chain to humans, posing a risk to human health.

    Microplastic pollution has been found in fish, birds and whales around the world. In fact, one study found that 80 percent of seabirds had microplastics in their stomachs! If a product claims to be biodegradable but still leaves microplastics behind once it breaks down, then it’s not doing you any favors by telling you otherwise (and let's be honest—we all know how sneaky marketing tactics can be).


    We hope you find this information useful. Wipes are great for keeping clean, but they can also be bad for the environment if they aren’t disposed of properly. If you want to be more eco-friendly, try using reusable cloths or plain water instead (if possible!).

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