MadSci Network: Environment & Ecology

Re: What is the standard industry test for biodegradability?

Date: Wed Oct 18 02:26:35 2000
Posted By: Andrea Riegler, Grad student, Biological and Agricultural Engineering, North Carolina State University
Area of science: Environment & Ecology
ID: 969441800.En

There is not one standard for biodegradability - it all depends on the 
chemistry of the compound you are using.  Some compounds will degrade 
rather quickly (hours to days or weeks) and some will not degrade at all.  
Also, just because a compound doesn't readily decay doesn't mean this is 
bad.  Take for example lignin.  This material comes from plants and is 
found in organic matter.  It takes a pretty long time to get rid of it 
because the rest of the carbon in decaying plant matter is easier for 
bacteria to use than the carbon in lignin.  Getting back to the point, 
lignin is everywhere and isn't really toxic so even though it takes a while 
to break down it doesn't really matter all that much.  The opposite 
scenario is also true.  Short term compounds such as MTBE (gasoline 
additive used in the winter) reputedly causes all kinds of problems 
(there is a lot out there about this so I won't go into detail).  So now 
you have two factors: time and toxicity.  The third issue is concentration.  
A little bit of fertilizer run-off, say from one lawn, is no big deal to a 
neighboring pond.  However, if you dump a whole lot of it into the pond, it 
will quickly be taken up by algae resulting in the death of the pond by 
eutrophication.  A fourth thing to consider is the locality and mode of 
transport.  Locality plays a role with respect to population density, 
climate, topography, soil type etc.  Mode of transport can sometimes 
determine the environmental effect of the compound - ammonia volatilization 
results somewhat different problems than ammonium run-off.  So, the short 
answer to you question is - it depends on SEVERAL factors.  What you should 
first determine is the ingredients of the product.  Second, go on-line and 
look for Material Safety Data Sheets.  I've included the address for a page 
full of links to pertinent sites.  Then depending on what you are using and 
how you are using it (in what concentrations, where, etc.) apply that 

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