Are rubber bands biodegradable? Can they be composted?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

Rubber bands, or elastic bands, have been around for a long time. First recorded in the 1840’s they have evolved into the highly versatile bands we know today. From holding mail together for delivery to their use in dentistry, there really are no limits for the ways they can be used.  With millions being used every year, it can lead to a lot of waste if they are not disposed of in an eco-friendly way. This leads to the question – are rubber bands biodegradable and can they be composted?

Are rubber bands made from rubber?!

Rubber bands these days tend to be made from a blend of natural rubber and synthetic rubber (generally EPDM, or ethylene propylene diene monomer).  The synthetic rubber element, although not adding to the strength of the band, makes it a lot more durable and increases its longevity. Generally speaking, bands that don’t last long will have a higher content of natural rubber.

Natural rubber is derived from a whole host of different trees but most commonly the Hevea brasiliensis tree (or more conveniently referred to as the rubber tree). Rubber is produced from the latex sap that is ‘tapped’ from the tree. From an environmental point of view, producing natural rubber is thought to be highly sustainable.

Synthetic rubber, on the other hand, is produced from the fossil fuels – petroleum and natural gas. This is not ideal – the fossil fuel industry has a significant environmental impact and synthetic rubber production contributes to that. Land degradation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are just some of the huge impacts that fossil fuels have on the planet.   

Are rubber bands biodegradable?

If an item breaks down naturally with the aid of micro-organisms, it is said to be biodegradable. It effectively breaks down into its components and returns to nature. Generally, if an item comes from a natural source it will biodegrade.  

Both natural and synthetic rubber will biodegrade. However, natural rubber biodegrades much faster than the synthetic kind. Their longevity is great when they are being used – but unfortunately when they come to the end of their usable life as rubber bands they hang around for a long time too. If they were to end up in landfill via the trash, although not ideal, they will break down. Eventually! And unfortunately, the longer they stay around the more chance they have of causing harm to wildlife.  Animals can easily get entangled in them or mistake them for food and choke.

Are rubber bands compostable?

Composting is a great way to dispose of organic waste whilst producing a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden. It’s a win-win. Sometimes people use the words ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ interchangeably. However, these two terms do not mean the same thing. An item can be biodegradable but not fit for the compost pile. For example, it may not contribute to a nutrient-rich fertilizer or it may contain dangerous chemicals that would contaminate the pile.

But what about rubber bands? Natural rubber bands and those with a synthetic rubber element can be thrown in the compost bin – but they will take a long, looooong time to break down. And if you are only composting one or two bands, the final-compost product output will be miniscule! If you do have a decade (!) to wait and opt to pop them in the compost pile, rubber bands will fall into the ‘brown’/carbon-rich type of ingredients. And as with all composting activities, ensure you have a decent mix of nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ and ‘browns’. We would recommend cutting them into small pieces that can be easily distributed round the pile. Smaller pieces will also give microorganisms a larger surface area to work their magic and present less of a hazard to local wildlife who get their paws on them! If you are new to composting, we have compiled the answers to some common beginners questions here.

With that being said, we think that there are much better ways to deal with rubber bands than composting! Use them to open jars, donate them to a school or use of them in the office – all great ways to divert them from landfill.

The bottom line

Both types of rubber band – natural rubber and synthetic – will biodegrade and can be added to the compost pile. However, the length of time it can take to be converted to any kind of useful garden fertilizer is significant – potentially decades! It’s your call but be prepared for a lengthy wait with barely any return. Although they can technically be recycled (location-dependent), re-using them as much as possible is the best way to avoid them ending up in landfill to soon!