Biodegradable is, by definition, made of substances that will decay relatively quickly as a result of bacteria breaking them down into elements such as carbon that are naturally recycled. Leaving little impact on the environment as a result. Safe cleaning products require more than just being biodegradable.
The claim “biodegradable” is being associated with environmentally friendly, or green cleaning products. In many cases they can be synonymous, but there are a lot exceptions. Many things that are biodegradable and natural and plant based and earth friendly and “green” are not friendly to our own personal environments. In the world of cleaning and green cleaning, several come to mind.
Not All ‘Natural’ Chemicals Are Safe Cleaning Products
d’Limonene is one of the first I think of. Back when I first started cleaning, we had a product that we called Sewer Sweet. It may have actually been called that but I never knew for sure. It seemed that the label had always eaten off by the product. It had a very strong orange smell. It was really greasy when you got it on your hands. (We rarely used gloves of any kind back then unless it was cold.)
It would cause our skin to tingle and if it was spilled on the ground, it would be slippery and was extremely difficult to wash away. We poured from a 5 gallon metal container into a drinking cup to then be carried to a stinky storm or floor drain.
If we made it to the drain before the cup dissolved, it would then be poured down the drain, giving the area a fragrance of orange for a few hours until the foul odors returned. I know now it was a completely natural product called d’Limonene, which is oil that is extracted from the peal of citrus fruit.
Safe Cleaning Products and Not So Safe
Although d’Limonene is a solvent that is much safer than most other chemical solvents and is much less toxic than compounds like mineral spirits but is classified as a skin irritant. It is biodegradable, but due to its low flash point, it must be treated as hazardous waste for disposal. It is also currently regulated by the E.P.A. as a VOC. d’Limonene is an environmentally preferable product (EPP) when used as is or as part of an EPP formulation but has many precautions to follow when using it.
Using d-limonene can cause polymers to swell. Many plastic materials can be damaged by its use. This includes equipment seals made of rubber or Neoprene, which are the materials used in many types of cleaning equipment and tools. It can also damage many surfaces that are plastic based or polymer coated. (ie: floor finish, sealed stone and poly based fabrics)
It is suggested that when working with d-limonene, solvent-resistant gloves should be worn as well as eye protection. It will deplete the natural oils in your skin and will irritate your skin and can cause sever damage to your eyes if not flushed immediately.
There is no question that biodegradable cleaners in general are a better choice. With the evolution of technology, there are very effective products available that can give you good cleaning results. Be cautious though. Be sure to read the label and safety data sheet before using any chemical product.
Just don’t assume that because something is natural or biodegradable that it is safe. Safety first. Results second. And if those two check out, then the product will almost always comply with green cleaning standards. Green cleaning means not only safe cleaning products, but effective ones as well.