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WHAT IS BIODEGRADABLE?

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.

Rate of breakdown may not be as important as what the product breaks down into. The ideal final products of any complex product of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen would be Carbon Dioxide(CO2) and Water (H2O). A majority of products are made mostly of these three elements. The previously mentioned piece of bread is made mostly of these, and after breaking down from complex sugars to simpler sugars, will eventually degrade to CO2 and H2O. This process would be accelerated if we ate the bread and our body would break it down and use it as energy, until only CO2 and H2O are left.

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

I ran across a popular cleaning product that proudly claims to be "biodegradable" and even has an environmentally pleasing name and color. 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" consumer to do or look for? Try to be educated about the 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.

Written by: Mike Bianucci


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