Cheat Sheet: Biodegradable

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Biodegradable. It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days. And with items ranging from disposable flatware and diapers to bags and balloons now available under the auspices of “biodegradability,” it is important to get the facts on what it all means.

Who Says?

Companies such as Coca-Cola, Solo Cup, International Paper, Glad, Whole Foods and Dixie Cup have all come to the biodegradable scene in recent years. According to the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a leading third-party certifier of biodegradable claims, the word has gone “mainstream,” but with little oversight and legal regulation of what it really means.

Products carrying the term "biodegradable" are only compostable in a commercial composting system. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Products carrying the term "biodegradable" are only compostable in a commercial composting system. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Biodegradable means a substance is capable of being broken down, especially into innocuous (safe, not harmful) products by the action of living things, such as microorganisms.

For its part, the European Union considers a material biodegradable if it will break down into mostly CO2, water and organic matter within six months of being put into a composting facility.

The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising and product claims in order to protect consumers from “unfair and deceptive acts or practices,” states that “an unqualified claim that a product or package is biodegradable should be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature, that is, decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonable short period of time after customary disposal.”

The FTC’s Environmental Marketing Claims Division uses these general guidelines for regulating biodegradable product claims. As “green” products have flooded the marketplace in recent years, the FTC is trying to keep up.

In a recent display of its authority, the FTC halted a retailer of rayon towels from claiming its product was biodegradable. The FTC alleged that the company’s products usually ended up in landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities, making it is impossible for the product to biodegrade within a reasonably short time.

Biodegrading vs. Degrading

Why are some biodegradable claims misleading, anyways? The above example of the rayon towel manufacturer shows that biodegradation is not something that just happens once a product is thrown out. Biodegradable products must be put through a specific chemical process at commercial composting facilities for their potential environmental benefits to be realized.

Thus, biodegradability and composting go hand-in-hand. When something is biodegradable, oftentimes a commercial composting facility is needed so that the materials residing in biodegradable products can be sufficiently heated, broken down into elemental compounds and eventually, returned to the ground as humus, a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

The definition of biodegradability is important to keep in mind because materials that remain after biodegradation are generally safe, as they have been broken down into elemental compounds such as:

Many of the inaccurately labeled “biodegradable” products do actually experience a significant chemical breakdown. Yet that degradation is incomplete. This lack of a full organic decomposition is the reason companies cannot claim biodegradability of certain products.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Biodegradable products are typically derived from natural, plant-based ingredients. Flatware made from potatoes, corn and wood is popping up at grocers around the country. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Some products that make biodegradability claims only degrade, which can leave potentially harmful materials behind. Take plastic, for example.

According to Global Environmental Polymers, because plastic is a non-naturally occurring substance, a plastic that is designed to degrade is one that undergoes a significant change in its chemical structure under specific environmental conditions, resulting in the loss of some of its original properties.

For example, because it only loses some of its chemical properties, plastic will never break down as biodegradable materials do (to the point where only elemental compounds remain).

The materials we use every day degrade and biodegrade slowly over time; it’s a part of life. However, when inaccurately labeled “biodegradable” materials inadvertently go through municipal composting facilities, they can contaminate water and soil because of the chemical compounds they leave behind, according to the BPI.

Common Perceptions and Misunderstandings

Additionally, according to the BPI, there is a common misunderstanding that products labeled “biodegradable” (even properly labeled ones) will decompose in the landfill and are therefore better for the environment.

However, due to the oxygen-poor and dry conditions associated with most landfills, rather than decompose, materials tend to stay relatively well preserved.

Here’s a perfect example: A trash study project conducted by the University of Arizona dug through more than 20 landfills across North America, and found “hundreds of undecomposed hot dogs, corn starch and lettuce dating back to the 1960s.” How did they know how old the food was, you ask? They used some of the still readable 2,425 newspapers they found to get the exact dates.

This is why commercial composting is a crucial step for biodegradable products to be environmentally effective. Once biodegradable products hit the landfill, they are as good as any other trash material.

Options Abound

Despite the difficulties in fighting improperly labeled products and keeping them out of the landfill, there are a plethora of biodegradable products helping to reduce the solid waste stream.

Biodegradable products are typically derived from natural, plant-based ingredients. For example, flatware made from potatoes, corn and wood is popping up at Whole Foods grocery stores and vegetarian restaurants across the country.

Some other biodegradable products include:

  • Compostable trash bags made from corn
  • Sugar cane and wheat fiber bowls, platters, and trays
  • “Agro-resins” – Plant-derived resins used for injection into molds as well as compostable bags and films
  • Compostable packaging materials made from cellulose

More examples of certified biodegradable products are available through the BPI.

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