Goody Bags Under Scrutiny

So-called “biodegradable” plastic shopping bags in Australian supermarkets have failed to decompose as advertised based independent tests, raising serious questions over their green marketing claims.

About 60 million of the plastic bags, bearing the brand name Goody (produced by packaging company NuPak), have been distributed through shopping centers such as IGA, plus cafes and other stores.  But according to a story originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald, tests done in October 2009 by Belgian company Organic Waste Systems.  {Editor’s note:  2/1/2009 – the link to the Sydney Morning Herald story has been ‘deactivated’.  However, you click on the link to read the full text of “Black Mark for Green Bags” by Flint Duxfield.}

OWS testing reveals that Goody bags were ''completely intact'' after 12 weeks, by which time they were supposed to be turning into safe organic compost. By contrast, certified compostable bags largely disintegrated within two weeks. Click on photo to enlarge.

Click on the link to download a PDF of the biodegradable test results.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been sent information questioning the green marketing claims.  In the article, it would not confirm or deny if an investigation was under way.

Jon Dee, founder of the Australian environment group Do Something!, said that the findings of the test were extremely concerning.  “I am calling for the ACCC to begin an investigation into Goody bags based on these tests. If they find it doesn’t biodegrade according to the national standards then it should clearly be removed from the market,” Mr Dee said.

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Experts Warn: “Beware the Great ‘Greenwashing’ Con”

Eco-conscious customers who flock to one Washington store say they have chosen the environmentally friendly living shop because they know they are in little danger of being “greenwashed,” according to a newswire story from Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“I can give you a ton of words that mean absolutely, positively nothing,” said Daniel Velez, owner of Greater Goods, where the shelves are stocked only after careful, painstaking research. “The word natural. The word earth-friendly. It means nothing since it’s not legally defined. Biodegradable, except in California, doesn’t actually carry any weight of law.”

The article identifies the lack of legal requirements companies must follow when marketing products as “green” or “sustainable.”

“Today it suffices to just slap some green paint on a product to call it green,” Bernard Caron, director of marketing for the Belgian company Ecover, told AFP. Ecover, a long-time international leader in ecologically safe cleaning products, has rejected the European Commission‘s “Ecolabel” since Ecover believes the voluntary environmental certification standards are not sufficiently stringent.

“Many American consumers, even in the face of economic uncertainty, express a willingness to pay more for environmentally friendly products,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale Project on Climate Change.

The best thing consumers can do is read the fine print, and try to decipher the specifics behind a product’s “green” label.

Read more about it at “Beware the great ‘greenwashing’ con, experts warn (AFP)

“Would bamboo by any other name biodegrade as well?”

It’s a tough environment out there for environmental marketers.  Even makers of an innovative bamboo-derived fabric, Bambosa, can’t make a seemingly slam-dunk green marketing claim without close scrutiny from the FTC.  Is the FTC splitting hairs…or fibers?  Hardly.

The Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement in October 2009 with The M Group (the makers of Bambosa) which alleged the company falsely claimed its rayon products are made of bamboo fiber, retain bamboo’s antimicrobial properties, and are biodegradable. According to the FTC:

Just because bamboo is green does not mean that companies who purport to make clothing and other textiles from processed bamboo can make unsupported “green” claims.

The FTC took exception with The M Group’s claim that fabrics made from Bambosa fibers retained bamboo’s natural antimicrobial properties.  According to the FTC, rayon fibers derived from cellulose from bamboo do not retain any natural antimicrobial properties of the plant.

Further, however, the conversion process involves harsh chemicals that remove any antimicrobial properties while releasing hazardous air pollution. Clearly the FTC believes the ends (a “green marketing claim”) do not justify the means.

The M Group agreed that it will not make any future bamboo claims unless they are true and backed by reliable evidence, and that it will no longer claim that the clothing and bath products it sells are made of bamboo fiber – when they actually are made of rayon processed from bamboo plants.

The FTC also recently took actions against three other products labeled biodegradable because, in reality, they were unlikely to have the opportunity or even ability to break down.   The companies that make the affected products – Sami Designs, LLC, doing business as (d/b/a) Jonäno; CSE, Inc., d/b/a Mad Mod; and Pure Bamboo, LLC – all subsequently settled the FTC’s complaints and agreed to stop making the false claims.

The Commission’s logic is that these rayon products are not biodegradable because they will not break down in a reasonably short time after customary disposal.  Most clothing and textiles are disposed of either by recycling or sending to a landfill. Neither method results in quick biodegradation.

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European Bioplastics Group Distances Itself from ‘Oxo-Degradables’

According to an article in Packaging News, The European trade association European Bioplastics has called for claims of biodegradability and compostability to be backed by international standards.

European Bioplastics said products that did not meet the standard requirements risked confusing the public, and it was important that items carrying the seedling logo, for compostable products, were not associated in anyway with oxo-biodegradable products.

Chairman Andy Sweetman said the environmental credentials of the bioplastic products were subject to close scrutiny. “If products that claim to be biodegradable or compostable are not proven to fulfil acknowledged standards, this is liable to impact negatively on our own members’ products, even though they fully comply,” he said.

A spokesperson for one manufacturer of products using oxo-degrabale additives said

“It’s nonsense for organisations to say that oxo-degradable plastics have to comply with composting standards,” he said.

Tell that to the composters who must spend hours (and hundreds of dollars) screening out partially degraded fragments of ‘partly’ degradable plastics from finished compost. It is a huge issue for the composting industry. In fact, one composter calculated that a significant portion of his expenses were caused by dealing with non-compostable plastic bags.

Click on the link to read the European Bioplastics position paper on oxo-biogradable plastics.

European Plastics Recyclers Warn Against ‘Oxo-Degradable’ Additives

The European Plastics Recyclers Association (EuPR) recently urged manufacturers to exercise caution if using oxo-degradable additives, warning they have the potential to do more harm to the environment than good.

“We urge manufacturers of PET resin and packaging to refrain from introductions of degradable additive-containing products until data is made available for review and verification so we can better understand these products and their potential ramifications,” said the association.”

Why the concern, especially from a trade association funded by the plastics industry.

Well, according to an article in The Guardian, studies of one brand of “degradable bags” commissioned by the Biodegradable Products Institute, found that breakdown is not at all assured even in the most favorable of environmental conditions. The Guardian goes on to cite a recent Swedish study that found that polyethylene containing manganese (degradable) additives stops breaking down when put in compost, probably due to the influence of ammonia or other gases generated by microorganisms in the compost.

Additive manufacturer’s will continue to face growing skepticism and scrutiny while they continue to make unsubstantiated marketing claims.