“Accredited testing services such as NSF’s evaluate and authenticate green claims, including compostability, helping to cultivate trust and eliminate greenwashing in the marketplace,” said Tom Bruursema, GM of NSF International’s Engineering and Research Services, which offer research and development testing, validation of product claims, and certification to several protocols.
“NSF’s compostable product testing on plastic products such as trash bags, bottled water containers, and disposable dinnerware verifies that the products will biodegrade completely, quickly and safely—like other organic matter such as food scraps and yard trimmings,” Bruursema said.
In the case of biodegradable/compostable product claims, NSF International verifies these claims by testing against standards developed by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM). Testing is conducted by planting samples of the plastic product in a closed environment with compost. Once the plastic samples have biodegraded, the compost with the biodegraded samples is then tested for the ability to sustain plant matter. NSF International verifies compostability by evaluating:
• Biodegradation – the ability of the plastic material to be converted to carbon dioxide by microorganisms present in the compost.
• Disintegration – the ability of the plastic material to fragment to prevent clogging of the composting screening equipment.
• Eco-toxicity – determines whether the end composting material inhibits plant growth.
“Manufacturers seeking to demonstrate the compostable and biodegradable features of their products can utilize NSF’s expanding sustainability testing services,” said Malcolm Fox, director of NSF International’s Sustainability Services. “Our business customers are looking into their supply chain to verify the green claims so that consumers can be assured that what they are buying is truly green. There’s a lot of green-washing out there and hence a lot of mistrust.”
Fox noted in a telephone interview that there are well over 250 different green labeling programs in existence, not counting the number of programs among retailers, which means defining what green actually means with respect to individual products can be very unclear.
Another thing that lends complexity to the issue is that the industry is going from a single green attribute to a multi-attribute situation, “so we have a full spectrum of the environmental aspects of any given product,” Fox explained. “As this trend has shifted to a multi-attribute space we‘re seeing greater accountability being demanded, such as guidelines on environmental labeling. So when someone says something is recyclable there’s not much wiggle room. You can say something is recyclable but if there’s nowhere to recycle it, what’s the point?”
According to Fox, there’s a growing degree of authority over these claims, a growing number of standards, and a growing number of companies such as NSF International to provide the transparency required. “Progressive customers are those who look to these independent agencies to combat the green-washing,” he said. “There are many international standards as well, but agencies such as the FTC and the ISO are quite stringent on environmental declarants and claims, and these standards can be use in the courts. Companies shouldn’t make claims unless they can be backed up by a third party. NSF International has 60-plus years in solid science in testing a number of products such as water, food, toys and toy safety, and more.”
Another driver for this accountability is the consumer. “They’re starting to prefer to green products and starting to be willing to pay more for them,” Fox said. “Ultimately retailers want to differentiate their products, and green is an important aspect that fits companies’ overall goals. Consumers making preferential decisions based on green attributes, and being willing to pay more, certainly adds some economics to this.” —Clare Goldsberry