26 October 2023

Biodegradable vs compostable materials

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With the Federal Trade Commission updating its Green Guides, which were introduced in 1992 and last revised in 2012, it’s time for label suppliers and converters to understand the accuracy of their environmental marketing claims.
The terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ are often used to describe materials that break down in a specific environment and consumers often equate those terms with an environmentally-friendly product. However, the terms are often used inappropriately, and therefore a growing number of states, including and many municipalities around the US, have legislation about using those terms.
For example, in California, Maryland and Washington, it is illegal to use the term ‘biodegradable’ in any marketing terms associated with plastic. This is because ‘biodegradable’ is often interpreted as ‘compostable’ and can cause contamination for composters.
Let’s look at the terminology and what the Green Guides want you to know about marketing.
‘Biodegradable’ means that an item can be consumed by
organisms like bacteria or fungi that will help break the item down into some compounds found in nature. The term doesn’t reference any specific conditions required for the item to break down nor does it refer to the extent of the degradation or anything that might be left behind once the item degrades.
If you are claiming that a product is biodegradable, you’ll need to have testing data that shows under what specific conditions it will break down (Aerobic? Anaerobic? Marine? Sunlight? Heat?) and that the entire package (including inks, adhesives and labels) will break down within a year.
The current Green Guides also mention the term ‘after customary disposal.’ This is important. If the customary disposal of an item is landfill, incineration or recycling, a biodegradable claim would be considered deceptive unless there is clear and prominent data that shows the rate and extent of the degradation in that customary disposal environment. Obviously, that’s not possible in an incinerator or recycling facility and nothing breaks down in a landfill in one year.
Claiming that an item is biodegradable is tricky business, and puts your company at risk of being accused of making deceptive claims.
For the full Labels & Labeling article click here.


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