Posted in Sustainable Science

Green Chemistry Principle #10: Design for Degradation

By: Amanda Fogh

“Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment”

In today’s day in age, it is a constant battle to be the best, as a person, but also in research and business. New novel compounds that work better than the last coming out daily, it is a constant struggle to keep up. In my opinion, due to this fast pace, competitive environment, people forget to look to the future. What happens to these novel products once it is done being used?

“Design for Degradation” is the tenth green principle of green chemistry, and currently one of the largest challenges in green chemistry. It is hard to design stable products that function competitively for their purpose while understanding the degradation mechanism to determine if they are toxic. This is why I believe the tenth principle is one of the most important green chemistry principles, as it is one of the hardest one to achieve.

Some great examples of this principle in action are the compostable utensils and biodegradable soap/detergents.

compostable cutler

Compostable cutlery is most commonly made up of poly-lactic acid chains that derived from a biomolecule, lactic acid. Due to this, when the polymer degrades into its biomolecule monomers, no toxic products are formed which allow us to lower our impact on the environment instead of using plastics that will stay in our landfills and oceans for hundreds of years.

Detergents are another household product that is used daily that no one thinks twice about pouring down our sinks.  Biodegradable soaps are very common now, but it was through the design of a soap that could degrade (yeah that’s right, using our 10th principle here!) that we were able to produce a soap that could be more easily broken down. The molecules below are of two common detergents with the difference between the two is the left is the branched sodium dodecyl benzene sulfonate, where the right is the linear version of sodium dodecyl benzene sulfonate. The branched version is less toxic than the linear version, but is unable to be readily broken down and would accumulate in the environment. The linear version is much more easily broken down and is, therefore, the detergent that is used.surfactants

Through the innovative minds of chemists, many products have been made to reduce our impact on the environment, showing that we can think about the future instead of just the present. This is a step in the right directions and through awareness of all the 12 principles of green chemistry, especially principle ten, we can make a brighter tomorrow.



De La Fanier, B. Design for Degradation – Green Chemistry Principle #10 (accessed Sep 4, 2018).

Eduard Smulders, Wolfgang Rybinski, Eric Sung, Wilfried Rähse, Josef Steber, Frederike Wiebel, Anette Nordskog, “Laundry Detergents” in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2002, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. doi:10.1002/14356007.a08_315.pub2

Fork it over! Create Biodegradable Plastic (accessed Sep 3, 2018).

Green Chemistry Principle #10–10.html (accessed Sep 4, 2018).


Established in June 2016, GreenChem UBC (GCU) is a student-founded and student-run organization with the vision of promoting chemistry which uses fewer resources, less energy and has lower environmental impact. Through seminars, workshops, and networking, GreenChemUBC strives to educate scientists and engineers about important green chemistry concepts that are relevant to chemical research and the community at large.

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