January 7, 2009


There's no free lunch on plastic plates. Consumers are pinching more pennies than ever and it’s now vital that environmentally friendly products be price-competitive. During these tough economic times, the good news is that most green products no longer cost more. The bad news is that many solutions to our eco-woes may not deliver all that they promise.

Conventional plastic packaging alone uses 200,000 barrels of oil a day in the US, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Everything from plastic plates to food containers are being reengineered in the hope of finding a truly disposable container that will quickly decompose underground or in the ocean. Several are made from sugar cane, wheat, bamboo, or rice. Spudware (a clever name) is potato-based.

Bio-Plastic — Is one alternative to traditional plastic that’s usually made from corn. Its technical name is polylactic acid (PLA). Last July, I noticed the words on my Ben & Jerry’s smoothie container—“corn-based cups, made from a renewable resource.” The bottom of the cup, from NatureWorks PLA company, even had a recycling logo (with #7) and the word “compostable.” That sounded promising. Having an inquisitive green mind, I buried this container in my compost pile three months ago to see what might occur. I just dug it up and it looks just as it did on the day I buried it. Surprised? So was I.

NatureWorks website explains that their bio-plastic is “only compostable in industrial composting facilities where available throughout the world.” Calls to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality confirmed that there are none in Virginia, so any bio-plastic products that you toss into your garbage at this time are going to a landfill. But don’t assume they’ll biodegrade there. The same website also stated, “the low oxygen concentration and drop in temperature” will not allow their bio-plastic to biodegrade in a landfill—or in your backyard compost pile.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advertising guidelines state that “When you see a "compostable" claim on a product or package, it means the manufacturer should have made sure the material can be safely composted in home compost piles.” Hmm.

So bio-plastics may not be the ideal disposable green packaging at this time, but they do reduce our oil use. However, can our farmers grow enough corn for food, bio-fuel, and now bio-plastic?

Biodegradable and Compostable — Are not the same thing. The FTC defines “biodegradable” materials as those which break down and return to nature in a reasonably short time when they are “exposed to air, moisture, and bacteria or other organisms.” That’s definitely NOT describing a landfill.

“Photodegradable" materials disintegrate into smaller pieces when exposed to enough sunlight.
“Oxy-Degradable Bags” are made of conventional oil-based plastic, with an additive that enables the plastic to break down. Many are marketed as “completely biodegradable and compostable,” but again, only in commercial composting facilities—not in oxygen-starved landfills.

So what can YOU do? Don't be "hoodwinked" by deceptive marketing. Spread the truth about bio-plastics. Email manufacturers and ask them to re-label their products.

Consumer Reports translates what eco-labels really mean at www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels Be sure to check out what these terms REALLY mean and whether they're truly trustworthy.