What Is The Legal Definition of “Biodegradable” Anyway?

Dear EarthTalk: Is there a legal definition of “biodegradable” that companies have to meet in order to so-label their products?

—Bill Van Leeuwen, Hinsdale, IL

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

But despite such precise-sounding definitions, the term “biodegradable” has been applied to a wide range of products—even those that might take centuries to decompose, or those that break down into harmful environmental toxins.

According to the Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports magazine), there are no specific standards for the “biodegradable” claim, and no official organization exists to verify the use of the claim. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S., however, has issued some general guidelines on what types of products qualify as legitimately biodegradable, and has even sued companies for unsubstantiated, misleading and/or deceptive use of the term on product labels.

According to the FTC, only products that contain 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” should be marketed as “biodegradable.” But the FTC acknowledges that even products appropriately labeled as biodegradable may not break down easily if they are buried under a landfill or are otherwise not exposed to sunlight, air and moisture, the key agents of biodegradation.

Of course, just because a product or ingredient is biodegradable does not mean it is healthy or safe for people or the environment. For example, the toxic pesticide DDT biodegrades to the compounds DDD and DDE, both of which are more toxic and more dangerous than the original DDT itself.

Consumers with questions about what qualifies a given product to carry a biodegradable label should contact the manufacturer directly. The Consumers Union maintains that “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 encounter a manufacturer that appears to be stretching the definition, file a complaint with the FTC.

CONTACTS: American Society for Testing and Materials, www.astm.org; Consumers Union Guide to Environmental Labels, www.eco-labels.org; FTC Environmental Claims Guide, www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides92.htm#G2.