Green cleaning: fact and fiction
Biodegradability is a term that is commonly used when marketing ‘green-cleaning’ products, writes GREG WHITELEY. Most people understand what this means, but there is confusion about the identification and credibility of biodegradable products.
Many ‘green cleaning’ products make claims such as “super biodegradability’ and ‘100 percent biodegradable’. These claims are deceptive and misleading to consumers when they are stated without scientific testing or verification. This deceptive marketing activity is often referred to as ‘greenwashing’.
The phrase ‘readily biodegradable’ describes the process of matter breaking down to create organic by-products that will re-enter the environment safely. The term ‘readily’ means to do so quickly.
In Australia there is a standardised test method for determining biodegradability and it is called Australian Standard AS4351. There are several parts to this standard and Part 2 refers to testing for biodegradability in an aqueous medium – the most appropriate for cleaning products. While there are also OECD tests for biodegradability, the Australian Standard AS4351.2 was chosen by Australian scientists because it is a robust test on the fully formulated product.
OECD tests (and similar tests mandated by the European Union) are primarily used for testing a single ingredient. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for ‘green-cleaning’ products to claim that they are ‘readily biodegradable’ if they contain only one ingredient that has passed the test. A common misconception about green cleaning products is that if you combine only biodegradable ingredients, then the full formula must be biodegradable too. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Firstly, when chemical ingredients are combined into a formulated product, some mixtures may interfere with the bacteria responsible for biodegradation. This is known as the ‘inhibition phenomenon’. Secondly, a manufacturer may rely on biodegradability information from raw ingredient suppliers that may be irrelevant to green cleaning chemicals.
Alas, relying on single-ingredient testing is not an accurate indicator of a full product’s biodegradability. The only true method for determining if a product is readily biodegradable is full-formula testing. But why is this not a common practice in the industry? The answer is simple: fully formulated products are much harder to pass AS4351 than a single ingredient.
Without full-formula biodegradability testing, there is no way to know what a so-called green cleaning product will do to the environment and waterways and, unfortunately, little-to-no action has been taken in this market segment by the various consumer watchdogs.
By law chemical manufacturers must provide a material safety data sheet (MSDS) identifying the hazardous risks, health and safety risks, and even environmental risks. These are usually available online or by direct request from the manufacturer but are rarely offered as part of the marketing collateral. If you were to take a closer look at the MSDSs of some reputed green cleaning products on the market today, you might be shocked by some of the phrases they contain; these may include ‘harmful to the environment’, ‘toxic to aquatic organisms’, and even ‘avoid release to the environment’!
Many green cleaning products in the market claim that raw materials used are derived from ‘natural’ ingredients, and therefore the product is environmentally responsible. The reality is that many naturally occurring resources can also have an adverse impact on the environment in their application. It defies logic to have a product made from ‘natural’ ingredients if they are harmful to the environment!
Identifying credible environmental claims on green cleaning products is not an easy task for consumers, but it is vital that they know the facts from the fiction when making environmental choices. Again, the critical part of assessing environmental impact is biodegradability and the best method to determine this is full-formula testing by Australian Standard AS4351. After all, it is the entire product that eventually enters the environment, not just its individual ingredients.