Biodegradable products are not major contributors to methane emissions from landfills, as claimed in the Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T) article.
A North Carolina State University study, published online in the May 27 issue of Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T), leaves the impression that “biobased biodegradable products” potentially generate large amounts of methane when they are landfilled. The Biodegradable Products Institute believes that the headlines and conclusions of this work are inappropriate.
There are two fallacies in the article’s arguments.
NYTimes Green Blogger Kate Galbraith published a story about a recent FTC action against retailer K-Mart and two other companies (Tender Corp., and Dyna-E International) with making “false and unsubstantiated claims” that their products were biodegradable. (The two other companies make branded products carried by the retailer). K-Mart and Tender Corp. have since settled with the FTC, according to the post.
You can read the entire story here.
Kmart Corp. called its American Fare brand disposable plates biodegradable, while Tender Corp. called its Fresh Bath-brand moist wipes biodegradable, and Dyna-E International called its Lightload brand compressed dry towels biodegradable.
The FTC’s press release explains the logic of the action:
Since 1992, the FTC’s “Green Guides” have advised marketers that unqualified biodegradable claims are acceptable only if they have scientific evidence that their product will completely decompose within a reasonably short period of time under customary methods of disposal. In the three complaints announced today, the FTC alleged that the defendants’ products typically are disposed in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities, where it is impossible for waste to biodegrade within a reasonably short time. (italics added for emphasis)
What makes this case so fascinating…and important for Greenwashing Spies…is that federal officials appear to be scrutinizing green marketing claims based on two criteria:
- The product claim of biodegradable and/or compostable based on scientific tests and standards.
- Consumers must have a reasonable chance to take advantage of the marketing claim, i.e., the product must actually be sent to a municipal composting facility where it will actually be composted.
It’s the second point that is so meaningful for responsible marketers and careful consumers.
“We hope that these actions will serve as notice to these markets that an unqualified claim of biodegradability is probably false and cannot be substantiated,” said FTC attorney Michael Davis. “Maybe a piece of produce could be labeled biodegradable if it’s customarily disposed of through composting,” he said, “but the statistics show that most household trash goes to landfills. So even a piece of produce might not biodegrade” in a reasonable period of time, he explained.
Let’s hope this sets a warning bell among purchasing departments of major retailers throughout the US, if not in the marketing departments of manufacturers: marketing language involving hot-button words like “biodegradable” and “compostable” are guilty first…or at least highly suspect…if they are not backed by both scientific evidence and qualifications to those claims.
Greenwashing can have rather severe legal consequences…especially if you are an Australian consumer products company.
The Federal Court of Australia declared on March 30 that a director who approved her company’s advertising had been knowingly made false and misleading claims about biodegradability. Ms Charishma Seneviratne, while a director of SeNevens International Ltd, approved the company’s claim that the whole of its Safeties Nature Nappy product was biodegradable, when she knew that was not the case.
Justice Marshall has imposed a five-year injunction on Ms Seneviratne restraining her from being party to any nappy biodegradability claims without first having received independent scientific testing of the product being promoted.
ACCC Chairman, Mr Graeme Samuel said: “This case serves to emphasise that directors cannot hide behind their companies. If a director or employee is knowingly concerned in their company’s misleading conduct, then those individuals also risk personal fines and injunctions.
The (Australian) Federal Court had previously declared that the company had engaged in false or misleading conduct by making representations that the Safeties Nature Nappy was ‘100% biodegradable’.
Justice Marshall had previously declared that the biodegradability claims were false and misleading because SeNevens’ Safeties Nature Nappy range contained plastic components that are not capable of being broken down by the biological activity of living organisms.
Senevens marketed its ‘100% biodegradable’ nappy and nappy disposal bag in Western Australia from November 2006 before expanding to all Australian States and the ACT in March 2007. SeNevens withdrew the product from sale in April 2008 after the ACCC’s investigation into the claims.
Justice Marshall found that in making the claims SeNevens contravened sections 52 and 53 of the Trade Practices Act 1974 by engaging in misleading conduct about the biodegradability of its Safeties Nature Nappy. Justice Marshall imposed injunctions on SeNevens restraining it from engaging in similar conduct and ordered that SeNevens publish a corrective advertisement and establish a trade practices compliance program.
“Consumers are actively choosing products that are environmentally friendly. If a business makes biodegradability claims then it must ensure the claims are supported by rigorous scientific evidence.”
Editor’s note: In an ironic and perhaps not unexpected new attempt at greenwashing, SeNevens International Ltd has changed its name and now operates as Eco Quest Limited.
According to a recent article from Recycling & Waste Management News, the retailer has teamed up with global packaging company Amcor Flexibles to use a compostable film in its ‘So organic wild rocket’ line of salad greens. The packaging will initially be trialled in 40 stores as Sainsbury’s aims to meet customer sustainability needs and help cut their household waste. You can read the entire article here.
What we like about this is the fact that the retailer has clear and explicit instructions for consumers to dispose of the packaging in home composting or municipal facilities. It clearly solves a need — since soiled and wet plastic packaging can not be recycled and can contaminate source-separated composting facilities.