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Biodegradable materials are generally plant-based (e.g. wood, vegetable oil), animal-based (e.g. manure) or natural mineral-based products (e.g. carbon fiber polymers). In general, materials derived from nature retain some of their original chemical properties which provides a mechanism for microbes to do their work. Biodegradable materials can be solids, biodegrading into the soil (which we also refer to as compostable), or they can be liquids, biodegrading into water.
Products such as plastics made from man-made petrochemical compounds (i.e. those obtained from petroleum or natural gas), generally do not biodegrade. Modern research has focused on developing biodegradable plastics that disintegrate due to the actions of microorganisms. This is being accomplished by incorporating starch molecules into the polymer as it is made. When these plastics are discarded, bacteria eat the starch molecules, the polymer molecules break apart, and the plastic decomposes.
Consider, for example, foam packing peanuts. Those made from polystyrene do not readily decompose. However, ones made from starch will actually degrade in water. You can usually tell the two apart because the starch ones are a bit sticky to the touch.
Section 12 of SDS's that conform to OSHA's implementation of the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) in the HCS 2012 regulation may list the environmental fate of the material and biodegradability. However, while SDS's are required to contain Sections 12 through 15, OSHA does not have the rulemaking authority to require manufacturers to provide content for those sections and they are deemed "non-mandatory". Therefore, Section 12 is blank on many SDS's although many conscientious SDS authors will provide whatever information they can.
Biodegradation may also be found on SDS's when discussing whether the material can be safely discharged to the environment or waterways.
See also: Biological oxygen demand, decomposition, RCRA, TRI.
Additional definitions from Google and OneLook.
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