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Biodegradable doesn't mean plastic items disappearBiodegradable doesn't mean plastic items disappear

It would appear from the results of the lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission against ECM BioFilms that the argument still rages over what the term biodegradable means. Does it mean that the plastic materials termed biodegradable will magically disappear when left out in the environment? Then there's the question of how long it will take for these plastics to actually biodegrade in the environment.

Clare Goldsberry

February 13, 2015

2 Min Read
Biodegradable doesn't mean plastic items disappear

The judge in this lawsuit settled some of the questions, but not all of them. The environment that a biodegradable plastic material is in will affect the rate at which it degrades but not whether or not it actually will degrade. And we still have the question as to what constitutes degradability. Degradable is not synonymous with disappearing. 

Several years ago at an SPE Thermoforming Division conference, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Ramani Narayan from Michigan State University speak on the subject of plastic biodegradability. "The problem is that people are claiming that all you do is put an additive into the plastics and the material will magically disappear," commented Narayan at that time. "All of this biodegradable stuff sounds good. The public loves it! But, I ask, in what environment will this degrade? Define environment. The word biodegradable means nothing.

"Time? Eventually it will biodegrade, but when? Is some biodegradability better than nothing? No! There are serious health and environmental issues connected with biodegradability. It's all or nothing—it must be defined in terms of the environment and time," Narayan emphasized.

It reminds me of the guy I knew back in the 1990s who developed a "biodegradable" golf tee (probably similar to the one from Quest Plastics Inc., named as a Complaint Counsel's Customer in a deposition for the lawsuit). The guy I knew developed the formula for biodegradability, did some testing in a lab, built a mold and began producing biodegradable golf tees. He even got a few golf courses in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area to allow the tees to be used on the courses to test them under real environmental conditions.

The experiment didn't last long. The golf tees began disintegrating into white blobs of plastic laying all over the golf courses. It wasn't a pretty sight and, needless to say, the golf course managers didn't exactly appreciate these blobs of plastic cluttering up their tee boxes. So much for the biodegradable golf tees. Yes, folks: Biodegradable golf tees don't disappear, despite the promises.

As I've heard often over these past years at various technical conferences, you can't take an inorganic product made by a chemical/industrial process and get it to degrade through an organic, natural process. And, as it's been pointed out, carbon is carbon, whether it comes from fossil fuels or dying plant vegetation. We live in a carbon-based world.

The lawsuits will most likely continue as the hype over biodegradability continues. People will always expect plastics to disappear, but they won't, no more than dinosaur bones disappeared.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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