Biodegradability has many different technical definitions and has been frequently misused in reference to both detergent ingredients and packaging components. The dictionary defines biodegradability as “capable of being decomposed by biological action”. Cleaning and sanitation products which are discharged into wastewater undergo varying degrees of biodegradation with rates and percentages depending on temperature, concentrations, and waste treatment procedures.
A set of standards for biodegradability has been adopted in Europe but is specific only to surfactants. At present in North America, there are no official Government standards for what kind of tests are to be used for quantifying biodegradability of detergent products. In the absence of legislation and defined standards, our marketplace has become contaminated with deceptive label claims made by many companies seeking to take advantage of the confusion, using the opportunity to communicate perception on environmental friendliness as a competitive edge.
The terminology used to describe biodegradability can be quite confusing. The most generally accepted descriptors of biodegradability are listed below. Biodegradation of cleaning product ingredients can occur to several different levels, all of which impact environmental safety assessment. Complete biodegradation or mineralization is the preferred result, ensuring removal from the environment. However, extent of biodegradation must always be augmented with rate of biodegradation. A rate of biodegradation with a half-life (t ½) less than the residence time in a given environment is required to prevent accumulation.
Ozone is a powerful oxidizer and high levels of dissolved ozone will significantly accelerate the biodegradation process of most detergents and other cleaning compounds. This is achieved by the powerful oxidation effect ozone has on the molecular chains within the chemicals. Ozone reduces the complexity of the chemical compounds and therefore accelerates the decomposition or biodegradation of chemicals once they reach the environment. This process is especially effective on cleaning compounds that have been formulated for biodegradability.
Water Energy Green Laundry Systems consistently deliver high concentrations of dissolved ozone to the wash wheel and effectively accelerate the biodegradation of the chemicals used.
Some of the larger chemical companies, including EcoLab®, are currently working with the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) under a grant from the EPA to develop consensus standards for environmentally responsible products. One attribute of this new standard will be a better definition/standard for biodegradability.