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Biodegradablity Explained

Posted on 10th Mar 2011 @ 12:49 PM


The claim biodegradable is often associated with environmentally friendly products. What exactly does this mean? I would define it as being able to be broken down by natural processes, into more basic components. Products are usually broken down by bacteria, fungi or other simple organisms. By this definition, most chemicals are biodegradable; the only thing differing would be the amount of time it takes to break down. A piece of bread will break down rather quickly, whereas a piece of plastic will take decades and beyond.

In a perfect world, all products would break down to CO2 and H2O, but it gets more complicated with different chemicals. The banned pesticide DDT, is hazardous and toxic in its own right. It does biodegrade, but the process is very slow. The breakdown products of DDD and DDE are even more toxic and dangerous than the original DDT.

Many claim that their products are "biodegradable" and even has an environmentally pleasing name and color. I recently came across a cleaning product which claimed to be 100% biodegradable. After reading the label I discovered that the main (active) cleaning chemical is a nonylphenolethoxylate (NPE), made solely of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. This class of chemicals are considered suspicious because they are possible endocrine disruptors. This means they may mimic the endocrine hormones and may cause havoc with a female's reproductive system. NPE's do biodegrade to a benzene ring type structure and other simpler structures. This biodegrading may or may not lead to a less hazardous chemical, but still hazardous. Although it is biodegradable, this product is by no means environmentally friendly.

Biodegradability is definitely a positive trait, yet it could be applied to virtually anything. What is a "green" and what to look for? Try to learn on products you purchase. Read the label and reward companies which fully disclose the ingredients in their products. Also products based on natural ingredients are more, but not always, likely to be safer and degrade easier. Even though a product may say it is biodegradable, it may not be environmentally friendly.


Since 1983 our manufacturer has been supplying boaters with products which are adapted for marine applications. Our boat care and boat cleaning products conform to the legal requirements, notably the EEC regulatory requirements in respect of biodegradability and ecotoxicity which requires rigorous selection of the raw materials. The different surface active agents (tensioactives) used in our compounds satisfy the newly applicable EEC regulations relating to detergents and their biodegradability.

It goes without saying that we are concerned about the future impact of the products on the marine environment and as such in minimising any negative effect on fauna and flora and equally relating to the provision of information indispensible to its end-users to ensure that they observe recommended doses, conditions of use and application.

Because of this, our manufacturer does not follow the current exclusive marketing and advertising "mode" which is based on "headline claims" such as 100% ecological, 100% environmental, 100% green, 100% natural. Indeed, reading such slogans can result in the consumer reaching erroneous conclusions. It is very important to express such affirmations in a more subtle manner, which does not lead to confusion.

For example, the indication 100% biodegradable never specifies whether it relates solely to 100% of the formula or only 100% of the tensioactives. Another example, the indication 100% natural can lead to confusion. One needs to know whether the raw materials used in the composition of certain products with an "eco-label" are mineral oil-based or not. By contrast, surface active agents of vegetable origin may have been chemically transformed. Once again, the 100% natural label misleads the consumer.

Finally, it is very important to know whether vegetable extracts could be just as toxic to fauna and flora as any synthetic extracts. In the end, it depends on the dose.

We'll give you an example: 95% alcohol is highly toxic. Whilst at 40% alcohol can be assimilated and is biodegradable (e.g. Cognac, Calvados...). It should also be recognised that each raw material of vegetable origin, cannot be used directly in a formulation. The molecules must first be extracted, modified, separated, either by chemical action or by biochemical action.

When a product is indicated as being biodegradable by more than 90%, this does not mean that the remaining 10% is not biodegradable. Biodegradability is measured based on tests effected in the presence or absence of air over a number of days defined by the European Union directive on detergents.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that a written claim on a label "Biodegradability greater than 90%" could simply indicate that the detergent comprises more than 90% water!!!