“Biodegradable” does not mean “Safe”

“Biodegradable” does not mean “Safe”

We were offered a product to sell and we were assured it was 100% safe because it was biodegradable.

This is just not true.  If anything, it may mean the opposite.  Biodegradable means it breaks down naturally. This means it reacts very well with things in the environment. Safety in chemicals means that it does not affect people at all or that it affects people in a positive manner.

Nitroglycerin and cyanide are to chemicals that are very readily biodegradable.  The formula for Nitroglycerin is C3H5N3O9 which is carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. So nitroglycerin very rapidly breaks down into chemicals that are really good for life.  Cyanide is CN and comes as Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN), a colorless gas, Sodium Cyanide (NaCN) or Potassium Cyanide (KCN).  So cyanide is carbon and nitrogen which very rapidly breaks down and carbon and nitrogen are essential for life.

However nitroglycerin and cyanide gas are not considered safe.

Following is a letter from the Washington State Department of Ecology explaining a bit about what biodegradable really means.

“Ferguson, Dan Washington State Department of Ecology


I just finished doing some research on your behalf.  There is no legal definition of “biodegradable.”  I found this very good article that discusses, if there was, what it could be below:



The article basically states, while you don’t legally have to prove a product is biodegradable, a company can still be sued by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) or other parties if the “biodegradable” claim is “misleading and/or deceptive.”  I could help you determine this if you can get your hands on the product’s MSDS sheet.  Once I know the chemicals in the product, I would have a good idea on whether or not the product can break down readily.  At the very least I could make sure the chemicals in it were not long lasting.

As for your second question, I realized after I tried to answer the black and white version, you may have meant “how do you certify a product to be biodegradable (or green) in Washington State or in the US?”

For the original question, I contacted Washington State Consumer Protection Agency as well as other Department of Ecology coworkers.  The short answer is you do not need to certify a product in order to sell it.  You do have to perform due diligence to make sure you’re not selling a dangerous or inferior product as that could cause legal/business issues, but you don’t have to go through a state or federal agency to sell something.  The thing you do need to do is to make sure you can legally and safely ship or transport it.  To make sure you can ship the product, you will need to check with the Post Master General (US Postal Service) and probably the Department of Agriculture as well.  Their basic concerns will probably center around the toxicity and/or level of hazard the product may have.

As far as certifying a product as biodegradable or green in WA/US, there’s a number of non-profit organizations that can do this, but the most recognized (most bang for your buck) is probably the EPA’s DfE program (Design for the Environment).  Now if I remember correctly the pitch remover was not your product, but the company wanted to have it sold on your website or by your company.  Depending on how much they want to market their product as “biodegradable,” they could pursue the DfE certification.  More information about the DfE program is below and it might even be something your company may want to look into for other products if you’re interested in finding other products that are DfE certified.  As far as I know the DfE program usually certifies mostly consumer goods, but I would not be surprised if it starts branching out into the commercial sector as well.




I hope that helps and if you have any other questions, feel free to contact me either by phone or email.  I would be more than happy to help.


Dan Ferguson”


800 346-8274


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