The Biodegradable Claim

While there technically is no legal definition of the term “biodegradable”, the American Society for Testing and Materials defines it as “a degradation caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material”. According to the European Union, a material can be classified as biodegradable only if it will break down into mostly carbon dioxide, water and organic matter within six months.

Despite the clarity of the European Union’s definition, the term “biodegradable” has still been applied to countless products, some of which might take as much as hundreds if not thousands of years to decompose. Also, some products that decompose only to become harmful environmental toxins have been labeled as “biodegradable” on occasion.

In reality, there are no specific standards which determine whether or not a material is truly biodegradable, and there is no official group or organization in existence responsible to make that judgment. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States has issued some relatively vague guidelines concerning what types of products can be labeled as biodegradable, and they have even gone to such lengths as to file lawsuits against companies for misleading or deceptive use of the term on their product labels as a sales ploy.

According to FTC policy, strictly products containing materials that “break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time when they are exposed to air, moisture and bacteria or other organisms” can boast the title of “biodegradable”. However, the FTC does acknowledge that sometimes even those appropriately labeled products may not break down properly if they are buried beneath a landfill or are otherwise shielded from the elements. Air, sunlight and moisture are the key factors of biodegradation.

It is important to remember that just because a product or an specific ingredient is labeled as biodegradable does not necessarily mean that it is automatically healthy or safe for humans of the environment. For instance, DDT is a toxic pesticide that biodegrades to the compounds DDE and DDD, which are both more toxic by themselves than when in their combined state of DDT.

Consumer inquiries regarding what exactly qualifies a product to feature a biodegradable label should be directed to the manufacturer of the product in question. According to the Consumers Union, “If a manufacturer has solid scientific evidence demonstrating that the product will break down and decompose into by-products found in nature in a short period of time, then claiming that it is ‘biodegradable’ is not deceptive.” If you come upon a manufacturer using the biodegradable label that you find questionable, you should file a formal complain with the FTC.