There are certain advantages to having a lot of old emails hanging around in your inbox. If something happens and gets corrected soon after, it’s an ignorable “blip” in the grand scheme of things. If there’s no correction, then you know you might have something significant.
Case in point: I just learned from an old email subscription that substances such as wood, banana peels, apple cores, and paper are not biodegradable. How do I know? Because they do not meet the definition of “biodegradable” that the Federal Trade Commission applies to plastics.
Back in 2015, the FTC went after ECM Biofilms for claiming their additive made plastics “biodegradable.”
Initially, ECM claimed the additive would cause plastics to break down “in timeframes that would be similar to things like wood or pieces of sticks.” But when consumers clamored for a specific time, ECM began saying “nine months to five years” in 2009.
When challenged by the FTC, ECM brought out 19 studies showing plastics degraded faster with their additive, including one where plastic biodegraded 49.28% over 900 days (traditional plastic biodegraded just 0.12%). Sounds “biodegradable” to me.
The FTC countered with 13 tests that showed no acceleration in degradation. And a survey that showed a “significant minority” expected that “biodegradable” meant a thing would “fully decompose” within five years–a standard of proof that is impossible even for materials that are understood to be “intrinsically biodegradable,” such as wood, paper, and food waste.
Believe it or not, this is actually a “relaxed” standard compared to the FTC’s 2013 definition:
To claim a product is “biodegradable,” a company should have proof the product will completely break down and return to nature within a year. Landfills shut out sunlight, air, and moisture, so even paper and food could take decades to decompose. Most plastics won’t biodegrade even outside of a landfill.
So, despite an FTC administrative law judge ruling that the additive worked, the full FTC commission decided that claiming “biodegradable” on something that takes more than five years to “fully decompose” (even in landfills where “intrinsically biodegradable” materials may take considerably more than five years) is false advertising.
I searched for a few other related articles, finding a few (government website) guides about what was and wasn’t green, a few “green” websites pointing out that putting these additives in plastics render them “non-recyclable” (so double-whammy), and even an old (2009) blog entry from when the FTC first started seriously looking into claims, where (judging from the comments) the “environmentally conscious” readers bit on the FTC rhetoric–hook, line, and sinker.
In the years since that ruling, I have found nothing to indicate that more sensible heads have prevailed. Keep in mind, many “recyclable” plastics, even when put in recycling containers, end up in landfills for one reason or another (but that’s a subject for another blog), where they break down just as slowly as any other non-recyclable. The end result is that this ruling is creating more waste by setting arbitrary and impossibly high standards for “biodegradable” plastics while simultaneously discouraging real solutions to our growing plastic waste issue.
So next time you peel an orange, or a banana, or shuck some sweet corn from the farmer’s market for dinner, remember: the packaging is not biodegradable. The FTC said so.