Everywhere you look, packaging and products proclaim they are green. But unfortunately the claims are often untrue. There are two categories that are especially confusing to consumers: conventional fossil fuel plastics claiming that they are in some way eco-friendly, perhaps even compostable, and bioplastics made from organic matter, like corn, which also claim to be green. In this post we’ll look at the first category, conventional plastics billed as earth-friendly.
I was irked recently to see “biodegradable” disposable cutlery offered for sale at my local Whole Foods. Wait a minute! I thought, as I grabbed the box off the shelf for closer scrutiny. Most folks would have no reason to doubt the claims made on the box. But lo and behold, the product was made of #6 polystyrene, an old school plastic made from the chemical styrene.
Just so there is no confusion here, please be assured that fossil-fuel derived plastic is NOT biodegradable. Yet manufacturers of plastic are happy to confuse you by using this terminology. In California, it is illegal to make claims that any plastic product or packaging is “biodegradable,” “degradable,” or “decomposable,” but so far California is the only state to really examine the veracity of environmental marketing. (In October I wrote a post about the state’s attorney general suing certain bottled water companies for labeling their #1 PET bottles as “100% biodegradable and recyclable,” something they were not.)
Thinking that Whole Foods should really know better, I submitted a written comment to the store about the cutlery. Weeks later, there was an empty gap on the shelf where the cutlery had been, but signage indicated that the product was temporarily out of stock. I decided to write an e-mail to the WF national headquarters, and I’ll be interested to see how they reply and/or whether the product gets restocked.
Polyethylene plastic bags are another product that has run afoul of California’s laws. Some brands claim that their bags are environmentally friendly because they have chemical additives that cause the plastic to break down into small bits more speedily than they normally would. Doggie Walk and Poo Smart brands were recently advised that they had to stop making false claims about their product. See the story–DAs target ‘biodegradable’ labels on dog poop bags– in the Orange County Register.
Another brand that caught my eye is Natural Value. Their #4 polyethylene trash bags carry the following words on the box: ” our plastic products really do offer an environmentally friendly alternative.” The reason they consider their bags to be better is also clearly stated: “All of our plastic products are PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and plasticizer-free and are packaged in materials made from recycled paper.” Here I have no beef with the claims made. Natural Value presents their bags as an environmentally preferable alternative to other plastic bag brands. Can you go so far as to claim the product is eco-friendly though?
I applaud the state of California for holding plastic products to standards of honesty, and only hope it won’t be too long til other states decide to do the same. Have you seen plastic products or packaging you believe are suspect? Let me know and I’ll see what I can find out about them.
UPDATE: To their credit, Whole Foods Market never did restock the offending disposable polystyrene utensils, although they never responded to my written complaint.