Confusion Over “Green” Plastics Abounds

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.

Natural Value Eco Friendly Plastic Bags

Natural Value's Bags represent themselves as 'Eco Friendly'

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.


  1. Are plastic looking corn starch disposable utensils okay? We’ve been researching what to use and jsut about pulled the trigger on these: (1/2 way down the page). They say they’re made of 70% non-GMO corn starch and 30% talc.

    • First of all, it’s great that you are taking the time to research what to use! Re: World Centric’s white corn-starch utensils, we respect this company because they are really striving to make products that are readily biodegradable and non-toxic. That said, the only way you can get the answer to your question is to ask the composting company that you are working with locally if this product is something their process can handle.

      Depending on your needs, the most environmentally friendly choice you could make would be to use durable ware –so-called because it can be used over and over again, like stainless steel utensils. You may find that renting what you need from a party supplier, or pooling flatware from your homes for a community event, are options. Just want to put that out there!

      I hope you have a very successful event! Thank you for taking the time to consider what might be the best product environmentally. If you should have any other questions I hope you will feel free to e-mail again.

    • Also, you may want to take a look at our post on bio plastics. Thank you for your comment.