Views / Citizen Scientist

Is biodegradable soap a greenwashed rip-off?

Ingredients in products matter less than we think. It's all about how you dispose.

No matter how gentle the soap, washing camping dishes in a body of water is a big environmental no-no.

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No matter how gentle the soap, washing camping dishes in a body of water is a big environmental no-no.

As a newbie camper in the wilds of Banff National Park last month, I learned all about how to “leave no trace” on the trail. For example, we washed our dishes with a brand of biodegradable soap marketed to backpackers.
 
This got me thinking: What does “biodegradable” even mean? Has it degenerated, like “all-natural,” “naturally derived,” “real,” “green,” and “environmentally friendly,” into meaningless ad-speak?
 
Biodegradable does have a specific meaning. It's something that can be broken down into its basic chemical components by microorganisms (that’s the “bio” part) within a defined period of time – anywhere from 21 days to two years, depending on the material and the standard being applied.
 
The federal government’s labelling guide says to be declared "biodegradable," products should not release harmful concentrations of substances into the environment — and should end up in environments where they'll actually degrade (hint: not a landfill, where decomposition takes decades).
 
So ingredients are less important than we might think. What matters is that we, the end users, make sure biodegradable products actually break down, and don't harm the environment in the process.
 
Many old-fashioned detergents – no longer sold in Canada – were technically biodegradable, but they broke down into phosphates that choked our waterways with algal blooms.
 
That's not to say any soap or detergent, even biodegradable, should be dumped directly in a lake, river or stream. They're still pollutants. Environmentally-savvy campers dump soapy water in a hole in the ground, at least 30 metres away from fresh water. This lets bacteria in the soil eat up the suds.
 
And unless you really like the product, there's no need to buy fancy biodegradable soap for camping. Plain bar soap (not "beauty bars" with added perfumes, lotions and what-not) is perfectly biodegradable.

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