In light of recent news that SunChips is pulling their compostable bag off supermarket shelves, and the release of the new green marketing standards, now’s a good time to get down to the nitty-gritty of labeling. Are labels like “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, “compostable”, and “recyclable” a good idea, or do they just muddy the waters? Is there really any way for consumers to know what they’re buying?
The SunChips bag was pulled because it is supposedly too noisy, interfering with the consumer experience. Online chitter-chatter over the decision suggests that people didn’t really mind the extra bag noise, and the ones who did might be willing to make some sacrifices because they felt the bag’s environmental benefits outweighed any inconvenience…or do they?
Here’s where some critics have, shall we say, made noise over the issue. The bag is marketed as being fully compostable—and like all PLA (Poly-Lactic Acid, derived from starch from corn or potatoes) plastics it technically is—in a commercial-grade composting facility, where temperatures are high enough and conditions are perfect enough to break it down. The fine print, if there were any, could read that unless the packaging is disposed of in such a facility, it isn’t going to break down in a timely manner. Since the majority of consumers don’t have access to these mega-composting facilities, are the bags—or any PLA plastics—a sustainable solution to the packaging, and subsequent waste, conundrum?
Not really, it seems. If thrown in the landfill or the home compost pile, these products aren’t going anywhere fast; if recycled, they can contaminate whole batches of otherwise recyclable waste. So what about customer perception? Most people who buy these products think they are making a sustainable choice, and are casting a vote for the planet with their consumer dollar, when it can be argued that in fact, these products aren’t much better for the environment than conventional plastic. Indeed, they may even create new problems. Mass production of PLA materials requires farmland to grow the corn to make the plastics, instead of for food production, which could lead to rainforest destruction and increased use of petrochemicals, among others. Finally, these plastics are compostable* (*read the fine print), but not necessarily biodegradable, which may cause confusion for the consumer, and such claims could be misleading.
What it really comes down to is semantics, and these labels have been the subject of debate for months on the federal level, with greenwashing being the primary motivation for the FTC to take a look at how products are being marketed. Revisions to the Green Guides were released this week, with the proposed updates aiming to help businesses “better align their product claims with consumer expectations”.
The updates specifically define what “compostable”, “(bio)degradable” and “recyclable” mean, and do a good job of laying it out in a two-page summary of the nearly 200-page document. If a product is to be marketed as “compostable”, then it should, according to the proposed standards, break down into usable compost in the same amount of time as other materials in the pile. The meaning of “degradable” is also clarified, saying that in order to be labeled as such, the product must completely decompose in a “reasonably short period of time”, or no more than one year.
So what does this all mean for companies developing and marketing green products, and the consumers spending hard earned dollars to buy them? The heart of the matter lies in transparency. If a company advertises any kind of environmental certification or label, they must be very clear about how the product delivers, and be able to substantiate such claims. Period. Will this require more work on the back end? Of course. Will it make a difference in the quality of sustainable products available on the market? We can only hope so.
If nothing else, these revisions will help reduce instances of greenwashing, and hopefully hold those companies making green claims to higher standards. Clarifying the definitions of eco-labels will also make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions—which at the end of the day, helps keep the process on track and moving forward.