Don’t I need a biodegradable product to clean sustainably?
Biodegradability is an important parameter as far as cleaning product ingredients are concerned, and most ingredients in cleaning products are rapidly biodegradable. The surfactants have to be rapidly and completely biodegradable by law under the EU Detergents Regulation.
So when choosing products, the key point to check is that it complies with the law on biodegradability and that it has been risk assessed to ensure all ingredients are removed in sewage treatment down to levels that will not harm the environment.
Biodegradability is a characteristic of 'organic' substances (those based on carbon, like soap) and it means that the ingredient is broken down by microbes when it goes down the drain and through sewage works or septic tanks, mainly into CO2 and water.
Biodegradation is an important way of ensuring that the organic ingredients in cleaning products are removed from wastewater and don't enter rivers for example in quantities that might be harmful, ingredients can be removed by other processes.
But biodegradability is not the be all and end all. What matters is ensuring that living things in the environment don’t suffer harm. After a cleaning product has been used and gone down the drain, each ingredient must be sufficiently removed during sewage treatment, by biodegradation or other processes, such that no harmful amounts enter the environment. Scientific risk assessments are carried out to ensure this happens for each and every ingredient.
Some cleaning products claim or imply they are 100% biodegradable. That would mean they have no inorganic components, since biodegradation refers to organic (carbon-based) substances. Such a claim can only be supported by ultimate biodegradability tests on each separate ingredient. Biodegradability tests on the complete product are meaningless.
Since all ingredients are routinely removed to safe levels so there’s no harmful effect, improving biodegradability cannot reduce the environmental impact, though it can serve only to give extra assurance through even better margins of safety.