How Do the Upcoming Revised Guidelines by the FTC Affect Biodegradable Plastics and Greenwashing?

New Greenwash guidelines are being reviewed and updated within the next 60 days by the FTC. For a summary of the revision proposals, please see http://www.ftc.gov/os/2010/10/101006greenguidesproposal.pdf. These guidelines provide an opportunity to make sure that beyond just making product claims, we can steer behavior to a more sustainable culture of reducing, reusing and recycling our produced materials. From that perspective, do these go far enough to reduce or eliminate Greenwashing in biodegradable plastics? The proposed guideline changes in this area are:

Degradable
• For solid waste products other than those destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities, the proposal clarifies that the “reasonably short period of time” for complete decomposition is no more than one year after customary disposal. (The current Guides state that a marketer should qualify a degradable claim unless it can substantiate that the “entire product or package will completely breakdown and return to nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.”)
• Marketers should not make unqualified degradable claims for items destined for landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities because decomposition will not occur within one year.

This revision works well, IF plastic is pulled out of the waste stream and directed to the proper processing/recycling centers. The producers of the materials have a responsibility beyond their degradable claims to encourage consumers to dispose of the materials properly, in order to rightfully claim they are being responsible stewards of the environment.

The two additional aspects that need to be highlighted in their claims are:
1. Biodegradable plastics need to be clearly labeled as such and be able to be easily pulled out of the plastics recycling process, as these materials cause degradation of quality in the subsequent recycled material. The biodegradable material contaminates the non-biodegradable plastics and dilutes the strength and longevity attributes of these plastics. An example is how recycled plastics are used in underground piping. Biodegradable plastics should not be used for this application. If this material is included, it deteriorates and will have to be replaced more often and could cause serious leakage of the conveyed liquids into the ground supply.
2. If the biodegradable plastics are not disposed of where they can decompose, what good are they?

The revised guidelines are needed, but they still require context by the affected marketers to make sure the right message is conveyed. Otherwise, it has the same effect as gun control laws. The maker of the biodegradable plastics can make a positive claim on the green value of their product, but wipe their hands clean of any responsibility of what happens to it later.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

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