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the process allows the more hazardous ingredients in the mixture to be quickly broken down into components that have reduced environmental impact when the chemical solution is flushed down the drain.

The biodegradation process continues in the drain and the effect of simple dilution through the effluent system further reduces the concentration of any remnants of the chemical ingredients so that when they reach rivers and seas they have lost their original toxicity and are not in high enough concentrations to cause harm to aquatic life. Legal requirements on biodegradability of surfactants used in cleaning products were introduced after problems in the 1950s and 1960s where excessive residual amounts of surfactants in sewage effluent were enough to cause foaming on rivers.

specified within the Classification, Packaging and Labelling Regulations (or CLP Regs) and should be detailed on Safety Data Sheets (SDS) provided by the manufacturer or supplier of the chemical product.

Although there are numerous regulations targeted at specific aspects of chemical use and supply, there are also more general EU Product Safety regulations stating that products should be safe for people when used according to the manufacturers’ instructions. It follows that it is also important to ensure that there is evidence to support any safety claims made on product packaging. Product claims should be objective and able to be referenced to a reliable source – a claim should not simply rely on the basis that is widely accepted, if the balance of scientific evidence does not support the claim.

BIODEGRADABILITY The term biodegradability refers to the natural breakdown of organic (carbon- based) compounds, by microbes, into simple substances such as carbon dioxide, water and inorganic ions. The importance of biodegradation in relation to cleaning chemicals is that

Control measures were further strengthened in the 2004 EU Detergents Regulation, and subsequent amendments, which state that surfactants used in cleaning products must comply with agreed biodegradability standards. The Detergents Regulation stipulates the test methods to be used to assess surfactant biodegradability and considers ultimate biodegradability in addition to primary (or initial) biodegradability.

In layman’s terms, primary biodegradation can be thought of as the first stage where the surfactant structure is initially broken and this normally changes the basic chemical properties of the surfactant – this is expected to happen relatively quickly for surfactants that comply with the Detergents Regulation. Ultimate biodegradability can be considered as the end point when the remaining fractions of the surfactant are degraded to water, carbon dioxide and simple mineral salts. The Detergents Regulation also stipulates a time frame over which surfactant biodegradation must occur.

High levels of primary and ultimate biodegradability are now the legal norms for surfactants and for cleaning product ingredients in general. As a consequence, amounts reaching the aquatic environment are well below levels considered to be harmful.

Because existing legislation sets requirements for the biodegradability of surfactants in all cleaning products, it may be disingenuous to extol the ‘green’ credentials of a specific product in this regard as a common legal framework applies to all products on the market. DEFRA guidance states that companies that make vague claims such as ‘biodegradable’ on a cleaning product are unacceptable.

By the time cleaning products enter effluent treatment plants they have ceased to be ‘products’ and are just a range of substances mixed up with all the other substances in the sewer. The bacteria that perform biodegradation in the sewage works or in the aquatic environment never ‘see’ a product as such, only the remnants of ingredients in a plethora of other substances at low concentrations.

There are still a few substances used in cleaning products which are regarded as ‘poorly biodegradable’. However, DEFRA believes that of all the ingredients used in cleaning products, only about 3% are considered to be ‘poorly biodegradable’ organic substances.

Replacing poorly biodegradable ingredients with readily biodegradable ones that fulfil the same function is thus seen as a significant improvement in sustainability, provided this does not have a negative impact on other aspects of the life cycle (reduced performance or the need for increased dosage) which may counteract the benefit gained.

While ultimate biodegradability is seen as a preferred characteristic for ingredients in cleaning products, it is not on its own a guarantee of safety. If a substance is toxic enough, residual levels could still be high enough to cause adverse effects.

In our final post in this series we turn our attention to Eco-label and whether there are any real benefits in choosing such brands.

To read more musings from Max, visit the RP Adam blog here. Tomorrow’s Cleaning January 2016 | 35

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