Tuesday, October 25, 2011
BEWARE OF FAKE 'GREEN' CLAIMS
To be sure that the product biodegrades, look for the right label. GIVEN that the concept of biodegradability is open to many interpretations, the United States is very stringent when it comes to allowing such claims on products. In June 2009, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged a few large retailers for falsely claiming that their paper products were “biodegradable”.
According to FTC, the claims of “degradable”, “biodegradable” and “photodegradable” should be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence to “show that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature (decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal”.
All three companies which were charged by FTC – Kmart Corp (for American Fare disposable plates), Tender Corp (Fresh Bath moist wipes) and Dyna-E International (Lightload compressed dry towels) – settled the cases and withdrew their claims of biodegradability.
“The breakdown of any material happens very slowly in landfills, where most garbage is taken. Even biodegradable materials like paper or food may take decades to break down because they’re buried under tonnes of other garbage. Just because a product claims to be biodegradable or photodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better for the environment, especially if it winds up in a landfill,” said the commission on its website (ftc.gov).
As far as FTC advertising guidelines go, compostable means that all the materials in the product or package will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (soil-conditioning material or mulch) in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting programme or facility, or in a home compost pile or device. A compostable material is believed to leave behind residues that are beneficial to the soil, versus biodegradation, which most people believe to mean that the material disappears completely, leaving no trace.
Many manufacturers rely on third-party certification of agreed standards on what constitutes biodegradability and compostability. The most well-known certification comes from ASTM International (astm.org), formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, which offers the ASTM D5511-11 certification for biodegradability and the ASTM D6400 certification for compostability.
The Jasa Eco range of bio-based plates and cutlery (containing up to 30% polypropylene) cannot claim to be compostable, but it is supplying a range of compostable (as per ASTM D6400) utensils for the North American market. Its JEF-2 polystyrene clamshell, impregnated with an organic additive that will hasten the decomposition process, is certified as biodegradable in accordance to ASTM D5511-11.
Materials that are compliant with ASTM D6400 can be expected to compost satisfactorily within 180 days, but in this case, it means 60% biodegradation under municipal and industrial aerobic composting facilities. This kind of scenario is usually found in industrial composting, where machines regulate the temperate, humidity and oxygen levels of the compost pile which is agigated mechanically, and not in a small home compost pile that is left to degrade undisturbed.
Another certification to look out for is the EN13432 which is required in order to claim that a product is compostable in the European marketplace. This standard requires biodegradation of 90% of the materials within 180 days, and is said to be more stringent than the ASTM D6400. But in essence, both standards must be viewed within the context of commercial composting conditions, and cannot be generalised to include the home compost pile.
FTC’s research shows that consumers commonly think “biodegradable” means the product will simply break down into its natural components within a year after customary disposal (in landfills). A straw poll by this writer revealed that journalists would expect a biodegradable product to “disappear” after about a few months (only one person said it could mean anything from two to five years).
A more professional survey commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) among 1,000 American adults showed that most believe that a biodegradable material will decompose naturally within a span of a year in their backyard, landfill or natural environment.
In Malaysia, the situation is still very much a free-for-all, with many manufacturers (be it paper or plastic) making all sorts of claims with little, dubious, irrelevant, or absolutely no certification attached. This is only to be expected given that there are no national standards on what constitutes biodegradability. It really is a case of buyer beware, as what is promised on paper is not necessarily what is delivered in the real world.
BLOGGERS NOTE: The above article was written by MENG YEW CHOONG and was featured in THE STAR (Focus) on 25th October, 2011