Category Archives: Biodegradability Claims

“Oxo” Bag Advertising Claims Trashed by Better Business Bureau

The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (NAD) recently recommended that GP Plastics Corp., the maker of PolyGreen® plastic bags for the newspaper industry, modify or discontinue certain advertising claims for its PolyGreen plastic bags.

You will recall an earlier post on that questioned similar claims made by The New York Times in its announcement to use degradable’ bags for home delivery of newspapers.

Some of GP Plastic’s marketing claims that the NAD found unsupported included:

• PolyGreen plastic bags are “100% oxo-biodegradable”

• PolyGreen plastic bags are “disposable through ordinary channels” and go “from front lawn, to waste bins to the landfill”
• “You won’t notice any difference but the environment will.”
• “The greatest thing to ever hit the earth.”
• “Eco-Friendly Plastic Newspaper Bags”
• PolyGreen plastic bags are “environmentally friendly.”
• “Our bags are completely recyclable”
• “The result is obvious – bag it with PolyGreen and increase your margins while saving the planet.”

Ah, yes, nothing quite says you’re a ‘green company’ than the duality of enhancing customer margins while saving the planet!

There are some good takeaways here:

For marketers, simply put, making frivolous or empty ‘green’ claims is a losing game.  The NAD has reaffirmed the directions set out by the by the Federal Trade Commission’s Environmental Marketing Guides.

Next, consumers are becoming more sophisticated (and skeptical) of green claims. Genuine attempts to offer truly “green” products attract the attention of sophisticated consumers and harness powerful market forces which can be a catalyst for true environmental progress.  Frivolous claims only attract powerful legal and political forces looking to make an example of a marketing wizard.

Also, this decision really challenges the notion of product ingredients or additives that confer magical “green” properties on products.

To make ‘biodegradable’ a real solution, manufacturers need to first develop products and packages that completely biodegrade, in a timely fashion, under the appropriate conditions. They also need to educate consumers and municipal officials about the merits of composting as a waste-diversion tactic. And finally, marketers, consumers and their legislators need to support sustainable, community-based composting programs.

PS: GP stated that they would appeal the NAD’s findings. Stay tuned.

Identifying Greenwashing When You See it

In a recent story published by the Palm Beach Post, environmental marketing consultant provides some strong evidence of how to recognize and resist exaggerated green marketing claims that sound appealing yet do little good.

Scot Case of Philadelphia-based Terra Choice Environmental Marketing, Inc., said with the rise in ‘green’ marketing claims has come an increase in “greenwashing” – false or misleading green claims.

“When it comes to green products, buyers need to do their homework, and check out a company’s environmental track record, Case said. He advises looking for products certified by a qualified and independent third party such as EcoLogo or GreenSeal.”  Ed. note:  The certified biodgegradable logo from the Biodegradable Products Institute would be another good choice.

In 2007, his firm surveyed more than 1,000 consumer products making 1,753 environmental claims. All but one of the claims were either false or misleading, Case said.

For example:

• A dishwasher detergent boasts “100 percent recycled paper” packaging, and yet the container is plastic.
• A caulking product claimed to be “Energy Star” certified, but Energy Star doesn’t certify such products.

Case said the vast majority of companies are not following marketing guidelines provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Trade Commission and Consumers Union.

“The gist of the guidelines is that folks should be making specific, accurate environmental claims and should have substantial proof to back up the claims,” Case said. “It is a very simple litmus test that most companies are failing miserably.”

“Oxo-biodegradable films have more PR value than environmental value”

Speaking at the Emballage show in Paris last week, Hélios Ruiz, marketing director for Sealed Air’s European shrink packaging business, was quoted for saying oxo-biodegradable films had more value as a PR message than as a tool to bring real environmental benefits.

“Oxo-biodegradable film is not the answer. You need light and oxygen for it to biodegrade but in landfill there is neither.”

Ruiz goes is quoted as saying that Sealed Air has pledged to focus its green efforts on lightweighting its films as a solution to environmental issues.  “We are not going into biodegradable films, but focusing on source reduction;” he said. “We would rather make an impact on reducing the materials than have a communications story.”

The article summarizes that Sealed Air has become the latest major packaging player to express doubts over biodegradable plastics.

Our take is that manufacturers like Sealed Air are correctly focusing on source reduction, then considering the likely disposal method used by consumers. If left-over plastics packaging films remain dry, clean and can be economically taken to a recycling facility, then recycling is a much better option, then landfilling.

In this context, biodegradable plastics, such as bubble wrap, don’t make much sense, especially when they are landfilled.

However, what if you had a fast food restaurant with bins mixed with wet paper and food-soiled plastic utensils, plates and cups?  In that context, recycling is not possible.

Certified compostable plastics, on the other hand, are ideally suited for these applications where small amounts of biodegradable plastics can safely biodegrade in a professionally managed composting facility.  Tons of otherwise worthless trash is diverted from the landfill, and the organics are recycled back into a higher purpose (like humus or soil amendments).

New York Times: From Grey to Green?

According to a story appearing on the New York Times website, the famed ‘grey lady’ will attempt to go ‘green’ with new ‘biodegradable’ bags for its home-delivered newspapers by early 2009  (see: Cheap Green: Reusing Plastic Bags – New York Times).

According to the report, the bag begins to degrade in the open environment within a few months and within two to three years when in a landfill.

The story also quotes: “With this new technology, an additive is mixed with the plastic that causes the finished product to degrade over time, as it is exposed to oxygen in the open environment or in a landfill. In addition to being “oxo-biodegradable” the bag can be recycled along with any other plastic bags. The Times will be the first national newspaper to commit to using this environmentally friendly bag. “

Greenwashing?  Absolutely!

There is no data to support the claim that “oxo-bidegradable” plastics completely biodegrade in the anaerobic conditions found in modern landfills.

Further, according to a recent position paper by Canada’s Environment and Plastics Industry Council, very little biodegrades in a landfill, which is good because modern landfills are designed to minimize groundwater pollution and methane production because of uncontrolled biodegradation.  Plastic diverted to a landfill only adds to solid waste problems.

In the 1990’s, famed ‘garbologist’ (garbage + archeology)  Dr. William Rathje excavated perfectly readable, 30-year old newspapers from landfills, demonstrating that little biodegradation is occurring.  My guess is that a New York Times from 2009 (wrapped in the new bag) will likely be perfectly readable if exhumed from a landfill in 2039!

Rather than looking for a “biodegradable” solution, perhaps the money The Times is spending would be better spent promoting newspaper AND plastic bag recycling as a way to keep waste out of the landfill.