Are Biodegradable Wipes Better for the Environment? 9 Quick Facts

Are Biodegradable Wipes Better for the Environment

last updated on August 4th, 2022

As many people are starting to live greener lives, it’s easy to fall for greenwashing, which is when companies make their products seem more sustainable than they really are.

So, it’s natural to be skeptical about whether biodegradable wipes are actually better for the environment. 

Given that biodegradable wipes are typically made from renewable materials, they’re a step in the right direction.

Here’s what you need to know about biodegradable wipes and sustainability. 

1. What Are Biodegradable Wipes Made Of?

Biodegradable wipes are often made from cotton, wood pulp, or bioplastics

Standard wet wipes or baby wipes usually contain plastic such as polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene.

In instances where these wipes appear to be made from cotton or wood pulp predominantly, they usually have plastic fibers woven through.

Some wipes will contain rayon, although it is man-made, it is derived from cellulose from plant-based sources.

Unlike plastic, it is biodegradable if it has not been mixed with plastic.

Both biodegradable and regular wet wipes will also contain water and other ingredients to ensure they are antibacterial.

These may include alcohol, sodium hypochlorite, benzalkonium chloride, or lactic acid, but each brand and product uses different ingredients. 

2. Are Biodegradable Wipes Really Biodegradable?

Many so-called biodegradable products are not actually biodegradable after all, or do not break down in the way customers might expect.

Some consumers believe these kinds of products can degrade anywhere – even in landfills or waterways – but this is rarely, if ever, the case. 

Whether an item can biodegrade depends on oxygen levels, moisture, weather, temperature, soil nutrients, and if there are bacteria or microorganisms present.

Landfills may not have enough oxygen or the right kind of bacteria or temperature to break down biodegradable wipes.

So, in theory, while biodegradable wipes are made of biodegradable materials, they’re not always able to break down. 

3. Are Biodegradable Wipes Compostable?

In order to be compostable, an item needs to break down into organic material. So, biodegradable wipes are not always compostable. 

Cotton, wood pulp, and many kinds of bioplastics are compostable. 

The concern with biodegradable wipes is they are typically used as antiseptic and antibacterial wipes.

So, this can pose problems with composting as they may leach toxic substances into the rest of the compost. 

Some antibacterial, biodegradable wipes are made from lactic acid, which is plant-based. Others may contain benzalkonium chlorides or sodium hypochlorite. 

Although benzalkonium chlorides are biodegradable, there is nothing to suggest they are also compostable. Sodium hypochlorite is a kind of bleach and is not compostable. 

Many kinds of biodegradable wipes are also not suited for a home compost bin as they might not degrade quickly. 

4. Do Biodegradable Wipes Decompose in Landfills?

Some brands claim their wipes are intended to decompose in landfills, but this is not fully accurate.

Generally, products cannot biodegrade in this environment.

There is rarely enough air for items to break down in landfills as items are packed tightly together (learn more here).

Instead, they can end up producing methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

5. Are Biodegradable Wipes Flushable?

Biodegradable wipes are not flushable or septic safe.

Toilet paper is designed to break down in the septic system, so it does not get stuck in the system.

Wipes and other kinds of tissues are not manufactured with this in mind, so they can cause blockages.

Although the purpose of biodegradable wipes is to break down, they might not break down quickly enough or at all in water.

So, regularly flushing items that are not septic safe down the toilet will eventually lead to a blockage and system damage. 

6. Are Biodegradable Wipes Better for the Environment?

Biodegradable wipes are somewhat better for the environment as they are usually made from renewable materials like wood pulp, rayon, cotton, and bioplastics.

Plastic is made from petroleum; aside from being non-renewable, mining is also highly polluting. Almost 5% of global emissions come from plastic production.

Mining for plastic can also result in air pollution, water pollution and disrupt the surrounding ecosystem. 

Meanwhile, many bioplastics come from plants, so they are renewable and eliminate the need to mine for petroleum.

However, these plants may be treated with pesticides and fertilizers, which cause pollution. 

Bioplastics are also land-intensive, so the land cannot be used to grow food and may displace the natural flora and fauna in the area.

Fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides can contribute to water, soil, and air pollution and harm wildlife in the area.

Although organic cotton is an option, more than 10% of all insecticide sales and 5% of pesticide sales are for cotton crops.  

Plus, it takes more than 2,500 gallons of water to produce only 1 kg of cotton. 

Wood pulp is also renewable and biodegradable, making it more sustainable than plastic.

However, it’s not always the greenest material since it takes decades to mature; cutting down trees for production means there are fewer mature trees to store carbon

Many types of biodegradable wipes are not actually intended to go in a compost bin. Instead, brands suggest they should be disposed of in a general waste bin. 

Although these wipes are technically biodegradable, they are unlikely to break down in landfills, so they are not much greener than standard wet wipes in this regard. Disposing of these wipes recklessly can still contribute to pollution.

Dumping biodegradable wipes in the environment can harm animals, both on land and in waterways, who mistake these wipes for food.

Not only are the antibacterial ingredients unsafe to consume, but if the wipe does not break down or pass through their digestive system, the animals can starve as their stomach is full of non-food items. 

While the main material used for the biodegradable wipes is important, the substances used to make the wipes antibacterial also play a role in determining how green they are. 

7. Are Biodegradable Wipes Plastic Free?

Biodegradable wipes should be plastic-free since plastic is not biodegradable. 

Some brands might contain bioplastics, which are not the same as regular plastic. They are usually made from renewable resources, such as plants.

They are rarely made from one material alone. For example, you might find cotton wipes with bioplastic fibers woven through them to prevent them from breaking. 

8. Are Biodegradable Wipes Recyclable?

Biodegradable wipes are not recyclable, regardless of whether they contain plastic.

Even when they dry out, these wipes are typically made from more than one material, for example, bioplastic and cotton, which recycling facilities cannot separate.  

Even if you found biodegradable wipes made from pure cotton or wood pulp, most recycling facilities do not have the means to turn these wipes into new products anyway. 

9. Which Bin Do Biodegradable Wipes Go In?

If the packaging of biodegradable wipes explicitly states they are suited for home composting, they can go in your compost bin.

However, not all biodegradable wipes are intended to break down in compost bins or may have hazardous disinfectants, so follow the packaging instructions carefully. 

Many brands actually advise their customers to dispose of their wipes in the general waste bin. 

You should not dump them in your backyard or in a wooded area and hope that nature takes care of them.

As mentioned earlier, this contributes to pollution and can potentially harm wildlife.

You Might Also Like…