Are cotton swabs biodegradable? Can they be composted?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Along with plastic straws, cotton ear swabs have been a poster child for harmful single-use plastics in recent years. According to the World Economic Forum, 170 nations have committed to significantly reducing single-use plastics by 2030. And the UK is leading the way when it comes to cotton swabs (or ‘cotton buds’ as they are known elsewhere) – those containing a plastic applicator/stick have been banned in England since 2020. They are not recyclable and, generally, end up in landfill. But how can we divert them? Are cotton swabs biodegradable and can they be composted?

Firstly, what are cotton swabs made from?

A cotton swab consists of the cotton bud and an applicator. The applicator is typically plastic, but they are increasingly made from alternatives such as wood, bamboo and paper. The cotton element varies from brand to brand. Some brands opt for pure cotton, whilst others have a thin synthetic coating.  

So, are cotton swabs biodegradable?

If an item is said to be biodegradable, it can be broken down naturally by microbes such as bacteria. It, essentially, gives its component parts back to the earth and returns to nature. Non-biodegradable items, conversely, can stick around for (literally) millions of years or break down into tiny pieces and cause havoc in the environment

For an item to be biodegradable it must have come from nature. Pure cotton swabs (and any earwax attached) did, so they will biodegrade. Any synthetic coating, namely plastic, will not biodegrade.

In terms of the applicator/stick part, it totally depends what it is made of – but, again, the natural materials will biodegrade whilst the synthetic materials will simply break down into smaller pieces over a long time period. The common plastic applicator will not biodegrade (part of the reason it is being banned in England) whereas any applicators made from paper, bamboo, wood and other natural materials will. Timescales of biodegradation varies widely, from weeks to months to years.

It should be noted that the conditions need to be right (or, at least, okay) for biodegradation to take place. Contrary to popular belief, landfill does not present suitable conditions for biodegradable items to break down. It isn’t just one massive compost pile. Items are crammed in making airflow limited and moisture levels are not optimal. Even if an item is biodegradable, diverting it from landfill is key.

Are cotton swabs compostable?

Composting is a great way to divert items from landfill, but not all items are suitable – even biodegradable ones. Many people think that the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ mean the same thing. This is not the case. If an item is biodegradable, it may not be fit for the compost bin if it, for example, contains nasty chemicals. Contaminating the pile isn’t worth it, you could do your garden more harm than good.

However, for an item to be fit for composting it must be biodegradable. All compostable items are biodegradable but not all biodegradable items are compostable! Since plastic is non-biodegradable, cotton swabs that are coated with it won’t be suitable for adding to the compost. They will need to go in the trash, unfortunately. The same applies for those with a plastic applicator.

Those cotton swabs that are made from pure cotton and have a natural applicator are a suitable addition to the pile. In terms of composting, cotton swabs do not present too many challenges and contribute to the carbon-rich ‘browns’ side of the composting ratio. You won’t get a massive amount of fertilizer from the odd cotton swab, but they will play their part in a healthy pile – and in terms of diverting them from landfill composting is a wonderful alternative.

Considerations when composting cotton swabs…

Cotton swabs that have some earwax and make-up products attached can be added to the compost pile. However, swabs that have been used with any harsh chemicals should be avoided. Deciding what constitutes harsh chemicals is, perhaps, a bit more challenging! Products such as nail polish remover are best avoided. As always, you should only add what you feel comfortable with. Err on the side of caution if you are unsure.

Cotton swabs, particularly those with a paper/cardboard applicator, should break down quickly. A matter of months, rather than years.  However, you can speed up the process by simply cutting it into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces result in a larger surface area for the bacteria to act on – making the process go that little bit quicker. The pieces can also be mixed throughout the pile, ensuring they are spreading the nutrients they bring to different areas.

The bottom line

Composting can reduce what your household sends to landfill – but not all items can be composted. Pure cotton swabs with a natural applicator can be popped in your pile, as long as it hasn’t be saturated in strong chemicals! Although it depends largely on your needs, there are an increasing selection of reusable swabs available made from silicone and suchlike. As ever, we recommend investigating these options. It’ll save you money in the long term and is kinder to the planet too. Everybody wins.