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Compostable in Theory, But Not in Practice

3p Contributor | Friday September 24th, 2010 | 8 Comments
Big Corn

Corn is in Everything -- Especially Compostable Plastic!

A Response to Dinesh Thirupuvanam’s Article on Biodegradability Claims

By Robert Eisenbach, VP Marketing, Green Genius

Last week, Triple Pundit published a post entitled “California’s ‘Truthful Environmental Advertising in Plastics’ Bill Awaiting Action.” In it, author Dinesh Thirupuvanam addresses an issue we at Green Genius believe is a serious problem: confusion and misinformation about the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable.”

Rightly, Thirupuvanam points out that consumers often make assumptions about what those terms mean, and when a company capitalizes on that confusion, allowing consumers to think a product does one green thing when in fact it does another, less-green thing, that’s greenwashing.

Which is why we were surprised and disappointed when the author endorsed California Senate Bill 1454, which we opposed, and referred matter-of-factly to Green Genius as a greenwasher.

First, to the question of greenwashing. As a company, we pride ourselves on our transparency so we take accusations of greenwashing extremely seriously. In fact, one need only spend a few minutes on our website to know exactly what our products do, how they biodegrade, what testing methods we use, and who our third-party certifier is.  We also make it very clear in our FAQs that our products are not compostable and should be disposed of in a landfill (like all other trash bags).

Not compostable? Nope. Unlike so many “compostable” plastic products, ours do not make an end-of-life claim that we cannot support. We know that trash bags almost always end up in landfills so we’ve designed them to biodegrade under those conditions.

Meanwhile, corn plastic manufacturers are all too eager to tout their products’ compostability, despite the fact that these products are truly only hot compostable and most consumers do not have access to facilities where such composting is possible. Even when they do, those facilities almost never process corn plastic products in accordance with ASTM D6400, the standard referenced by companies to claim their products are “compostable.”

But back to CA Senate Bill 1454. As Thirupuvanam pointed out, we opposed this bill—that part is true. What’s not accurate is the other argument he makes—that SB 1454 “will eliminate (for Californians at least) today’s confusing distinction that biodegradable and compostable do not mean the same thing.” It will not.

What SB 1454 will actually do is make it illegal for products to claim any form of natural degradability unless they’re compostable per ASTM D6400, even if they do, in fact, biodegrade. Which is great if you’re a maker of corn-based plastic, but horrible for everyone else. It not only eliminates competition for corn-based plastic, but also eliminates products that would reduce the amount of plastic choking up our landfills.

Here’s what else is wrong with the bill:

  1. Compostability is not a logical standard to use since hot compost facilities that will actually accept “compostable” plastic remain rare in the state of California (see FindAComposter.com).
  2. Even Jepson Prairie, the operator that handles all of San Francisco’s curbside compost, only takes 60 – 90 days to fully process food waste. The compostable plastic standard that the corn plastic companies are using (D6400) allows 180 days. What does Jepson Prairie do to compostable plastic items that don’t biodegrade sufficiently in 90 days or less? They send it to a landfill!

In his post, Thirupuvanam claims that SB 1454 “has the support of the key players in the industry” and he’s right, if he means the corn industry. Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (by way of its subsidiary NatureWorks) lobbied heavily for this bill. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) did too, and why wouldn’t they? BPI was created by the person who developed corn-based plastic for Cargill (he also led the creation of ASTM D6400), and the organization is principally composed of corn-based compostable product manufacturers. (As an aside, if BPI is so concerned about the confusion between biodegradability and compostability, why don’t they change their name?)

Thus, far from actually clarifying the distinction between “biodegradability” and “compostability,” CA SB 1454 would simply let manufacturers of compostable corn plastic run the table, while stifling the development of technologies that can reduce the accumulation of plastic where regrettably most plastic actually goes: a landfill.

And so here’s a final thought on greenwashing. If the average Californian doesn’t have access to hot compost facilities that accept “compostable” plastic, are those products actually compostable? And if those products aren’t compostable in practice, but consumers are buying them because they claim to be, who then is greenwashing?


▼▼▼      8 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Jen Boynton

    Thanks for joining into the conversation with this well reasoned post. I would be interested in hearing more about how and why your company has designed your products to biodegrade in the landfill. I have always heard that, from a global warming perspective at least, landfill degradation is really *not* ideal because the byproduct is methane (because of the lack of heat to aid anaerobic digestion, I think. My understanding of the science is admittedly fuzzy). If the landfill isn’t capped to capture that methane, it’s emitted into the atmosphere, which is ultimately worse for the planet than a plastic fork sitting around for a thousand years.

    From an environmental perspective, I’d argue that our efforts are best spent on capping the landfills and investing in wide scale compost and recycling pick-up programs to reduce landfill size. I’d be curious to hear what the environmental benefit of your product is within that construct.

    • http://thegreengenius.com Robert Eisenbach

      We really appreciate the opportunity to engage in this dialog on Triple Pundit. Certainly, there are a lot of opinions on landfills and how they should be managed, but what is clear is that this industry is changing rapidly.

      The idea (and in some cases policy) that we can just throw everything in a hole, entomb it and just let it sit there forever is fast becoming a thing of the past. Entirely. This not only includes all of our recycling efforts and new programs that divert organics from landfills (like the curbside compost program in San Francisco), but it also includes the fact that landfill management is moving away from this cap and entomb approach to an approach where trash is being used as biomass.

      Think about it. In 2008 (latest data available), we discarded 31 million tons of food waste in landfills after recovering only 800,000 tons (2.5% of the total – see the EPA’s data on this: http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2008rpt.pdf). The old landfill approach was to suck off all the air and moisture and let it slowly biodegrade over several years. The methane generated would be flared and the clean energy contained in that methane would be lost forever. Fast forward to today. Roughly a third of all landfills are now capturing their methane and converting it into electricity or using it as fuel to run vehicles. In California alone, there are over 60 landfills doing this already. And this energy offsets our need to burn coal and other fossil fuels.

      Now you would think that because of all of our recycling efforts, etc., the plastic situation would be better. And it is, but it’s still ridiculous. In 2008 we were only able to reclaim a mere 7% of our disposed plastic from landfills, meaning we still sent nearly 28 million tons of plastic to landfills where it will sit there forever. And that’s just in one year. This is a huge issue. If landfills are being converted into bioreactors, as they are, why would we not want to allow the plastic that is just sitting in landfills biodegrade?

      Many people have framed this debate as an “either or” situation. We either invest in landfills or we invest in composting and recycling. This is a false choice. We need to do both. Landfill operators are already making the investments to add internal combustion engines that convert methane into energy. And we can and should increase the amount of recyclable and compostable material we reclaim from landfills.

  • http://www.biobagusa.com mark

    even if Green Genius bags did indeed degrade in a landfill (highly debatable)…it is totally, entirely missing the point. What good is getting something to degrade in a landfill? Think about it…its not really solving anything. The goal of most communities is to divert materials from ever getting to the landfill by recycling glass, paper, aluminum etc…and recycling foodwaste and lawnwaste…(composting). Misguided landfill claims such as these confuse the general public and are illegal in California for a reason. Again, I ask, even if Green Genius did degrade in a landfill…what does that solve?

    Greenwashing (a portmanteau of “green” and “whitewash”) is a term describing the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly.

    • http://www.thegreengenius.com/proof/technology.php Robert Eisenbach

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. The point is that we can’t continue to just entomb our trash forever, and that current diversion programs are not enough. As I mentioned in my other reply, we’re still sending 31 million tons of food waste and 28 million tons of plastic to landfills every year! That’s an enormous amount of biodegradable and potentially biodegradable material that we could be converting into energy.

      Absolutely, we need to recycle more, compost more and in general divert more. But we also need to optimize our landfills, which means managing them for biodegradation and maximizing the amount of clean energy generated with this biomass. These objectives are not mutually exclusive.

      A question I would like to pose to you and your company, assuming you work for BioBag (that’s the URL tied to your name), is why does BioBag market compostable Tall Kitchen trash bags and Dog Poop bags if there’s no benefit in sending biodegradable products to a landfill, as you say? These items cannot be composted (trash goes to landfills and you can’t compost “poop”) so they must go to landfills. These products would seem to be in direct conflict with your statements above.

  • Steve Smith

    I don’t completely understand the questions that many pro “green” people are making. For instance Mark’s question with why do we want things to biodegrade in a landfill?

    Shouldn’t the question be “what are the best environmental solutions and processes?”

    If we use the same mindset and thought process that got us into this problem how are we really going to be able to get ourselves out of it?

    Maybe we need to rethink EVERYTHING!

    Maybe we should include a variety of good solutions like reducing, recycling, better designed landfills to use the methane for energy and also composting.

    Do some people really believe that there is going to be only one single solution to the problem of plastic pollution?

    I’m really glad there are companies out there like Green Genius that are willing to stand up and take on big business and try to get us to think differently.

    Its too bad that so many are willing to kick the little guy who is actually doing something about the problem. But then again history is a good indicator that people will continue to believe what they want even if it isn’t true (the Earth being flat comes to mind).

    Why arn’t those same individuals raising hell with those that are doing nothing?

  • Rendy Mulyono

    Dear Green Genius, kindly enlighten us then, what does your version of biodegradable mean? How long does it take before your plastics begin to biodegrade and under what condition? What will trigger its biodegradation? Moisture? O2?

    • http://www.thegreengenius.com/proof/technology.php Robert Eisenbach

      To be clear, our products biodegrade just like all other products biodegrade, and that is through microbial action. Microbes, through their life processes, convert the plastic to simple bio-matter: humus, water and biogas (methane and CO2). Most plastic is impervious to microbes because the plastic repels them. Instead, microbes colonize on our plastic when the plastic is disposed of in a microbe-rich environment, like a landfill. That begins the process of biodegradation. (So the “trigger” you’re looking for is the colonization process.) We’ve used a standard test method called ASTM D5511 to prove that this biodegradation happens under anaerobic (i.e., no oxygen) conditions.