Biodegradability: When Science Goes "Down the Drain"

Toothpaste and body wash may be small parts of our daily lives, but because they are so widely used throughout the world, understanding their environmental impacts has become a major priority. The Colgate-Palmolive scientists who specialize in biodegradability are working to ensure that their products do not leave a lasting mark on the environment after use.

“Biodegradability” means that organic-based or carbon-containing ingredients will break down, interacting with bacteria found in the environment, and then be absorbed back into the environment as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. At Colgate-Palmolive, the continuous goal is to meet consumer expectations while using as many ingredients as possible that will biodegrade and not accumulate in the environment. Dr. Mike Burke, Director of product sustainability for Colgate-Palmolive and a 27-year veteran of the company, says, “It is our commitment to produce effective products with the least environmental impact — it’s the right thing to do for the people who use our products and for the planet.”

Burke explains, “Once Colgate products are used by consumers, they make their way down the drain, where the organic-based ingredients become food for bacteria and biodegradation turns them into CO2 and water.”

Assessing biodegradability is more complex than meets the eye. To determine if a product is biodegradable, each of the product’s organic-based ingredients must be evaluated and analyzed separately. At Colgate-Palmolive, scientists examine laboratory test results of organic ingredients exposed to bacteria that are representative of those in both the environment and wastewater treatment facilities. The quantity of CO2 produced in the laboratory tests can be used to calculate the amount of organic material that has broken down as a result of the bacterial exposure. The more CO2, the more biodegradation.

For Colgate-Palmolive, biodegradability is as important as it is complex. “Colgate-Palmolive has put in significant effort to ensure we understand biodegradability properly,” Burke says. “We’ve made incredible strides to identify improved biodegradable ingredients, and over the years, we’ve worked to replace ingredients to maximize the biodegradability of our products. This is something that we at Colgate-Palmolive take very seriously. We’re continuously working to improve it, because as a global company, we have a responsibility to do our part to protect the planet for future generations.”