What does "Biodegradable" really mean?
March 02, 2018
A Q&A with Dan Myrick, Summit’s Chief Technology Officer
Transcribed from Tribology Talk Podcast: FAQ: Biodegradability
What is biodegradability? What is all the rhetoric involved here and what means what?
There are some gray areas here. It's going to be a complex topic to talk about, but we will try to touch the top level of it. When we're talking about biodegradability, we're looking at how quickly a product can be broken down by organic organisms in the environment to its basic elements or basic constituents. And there are different levels of biodegradability. It's hard to use “biodegradable” as a real general term, but it's very much used that way by customers or the marketplace because they hear the term “biodegradable” and they think it has a very finite meaning -- so they ask for a biodegradable lubricant. At that point they've asked the question, and you have to start digging. Biodegradable to what standard? To what level? There's so many different elements to it that there's not a biodegradable term that means everything, especially in the United States. Europe is more progressed as far as their biodegradability standards and what means what, but here in the United States, it's still kind of a grey area. We do have some specific terms, but typically the customer just knows “biodegradable.”
And I guess that sounds good on the surface, even if the substance of the claim is a moving target?
Right, it sounds good and they know that's the direction they want to go, but then when you start pushing them a little bit, they just throw up their hands and say, “I don't know. I've gone as far as I can with it I want something biodegradable.” As there always is in the marketplace, there are going to be sellers that will take advantage of the fact that the customer doesn't always know that much about what they're asking for in terms of biodegradability. Some companies will provide a product that doesn't have the level of biodegradability that the customer really is wanting because they weren’t specific enough in their request.
So what should they be looking for? Let's make a baseline, say if you want X product you should look for Y wordage.
Well it seems to me that if a customer asks for a biodegradable product then he's wanting a pretty high level of biodegradability. And at that point, you would be looking for something that we would term “readily biodegradable.” Some of the more stringent biodegradability tests, if it ultimately biodegrades to a certain level -- maybe 65% after 28 days -- then you would term that product “readily biodegradable.” That's a fairly severe test, and it's really looking for a pretty good progression of ultimate biodegradability. That's kind of what you would assume that they want. Now there's much lower terms of biodegradability like, for instance, “inherent biodegradability,” which is really the lowest limit of biodegradability beyond not biodegrading at all.
If you are a customer and you want a biodegradable product, you really need to press the seller or try to get some marketing material that really explains what it means when it says “biodegradable.”
Right. There a lot of resources out there where you can read up on the different types of testing for biodegradability in the US market. Whether it be OECD or whatever standard of testing is used. And what level of biodegradability is considered a good high level? Again, is it readily biodegradable or inherently biodegradable? As a customer, you really need to familiarize yourself with exactly what you want in a biodegradable product. If your ultimate customer or authority that you’re answering to is asking for biodegradability, than they're probably looking for that higher degree of biodegradability. What you don't want to happen is to talk to a supplier and say, “I want a biodegradable lubricant,” and be provided a product that's inherently biodegradable and certainly not the level of biodegradable that the authority was asking for.
So the purchaser needs to educate themselves and then press on the issue because if they just walk in and ask for biodegradability you don't know what you're going to get?
At the very least work with your lubricants supplier to talk about the fact that I'm not an expert in biodegradability but my customers asking for biodegradable oil, so what should I be talking with him about? And look for the specific terms and specific test conditions that are determining that biodegradability. Hopefully in the future some of this will get ironed out to the point where we have some very definite terms used in the marketplace for what biodegradability is.