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Plastics semantics and words we can’t use in California

As a writer and journalist for the plastics industry, words are pretty important to me. That’s why I find the continued disagreements over the use of certain words in describing certain types of plastic materials disconcerting, if not rather silly.    

   
Last week I received an e-mail from Danny Clark, the president of ENSO Plastics in Phoenix, letting me know the latest from his company, which brings biodegradable technology to the plastics packaging industry. Companies that produce specialty bottled water and other packaging use ENSO’s plastic material, which “accelerates the natural biodegradation of plastics in biologically active landfills and anaerobic digesters as validated by certified laboratories using ASTM International test methods (ASTMD5526 and D5511).”
   
In November 2011, I wrote a news item regarding the lawsuit that California’s Attorney General filed against ENSO and California-based water company Aquamantra as well as Balance Water in West Orange, NJ. It seems the AG had a problem with the words “biode-gradable,” “degradable,” and “compostable” in the advertising of their products. The companies were accused of “deceptive labeling” in violation of a 2008 bill prohibiting the use of those words on plastic food and beverage containers. (www.plasticstoday.com/articles/california-sues-stop-greenwashing-biodegradable-vs-compostable-battle-rages1102201101)
   
Clark provided me with an update on the outcome of that lawsuit, in which ENSO agreed to a settlement that involved monetary fines of an undisclosed amount. “We’ve also placed a notice on our web site and are notifying our customers that California companies and customers cannot use the words biodegradable, degradable or decompostable on their products using our plastics,” said Clark. “While there were fines involved, they were “greatly reduced” from what the California AG was trying to get us to pay.”

The publicized  announcement on the company’s website reads: “California law prohibits the sale of plastic packaging and plastic products that are labeled with the terms ‘biodegradable,’ ‘degradable,’ or ‘decompostable’ or any form of those terms, or that imply in any way that the item will break down, biodegrade or decompose in a landfill or other environment. These restrictions apply to all sales in or into the State of California, including such sales over the Internet.”

Regardless of attempts to clarify and define what these words mean in terms of what plastic materials will or won’t do in the environment, even with various additives or with the use of plant-based polymers (bioplastics), the battle rages on and confusion reigns supreme.
   
That same week, I received an e-mail from Igor Catic, professor of the University of Zagreb in Croatia. I’ve heard from Professor Catic several times on this topic, and he argues that there’s really no difference between “synthetic plastics” made from “crude oil, natural gas or sometimes coal” and “bioplastics made from nature.”
   
Prof. Catic’s claim is that all plastics are at their heart “bioplastics” because all plastics materials are made from stuff of the natural earth, then altered by man-made processes to create materials with specific properties different in makeup than they were in their “natural” state. “Thus,” he writes, “we must stop greenwashing bioplastics as natural materials.” 
   
Again, words attempt to differentiate and define what is “synthetic” and what is “bio” or natural in the world of plastics. Ultimately the source material is “natural.”
   
Semantics aside, ENSO’s Clark wants to see a variety of solutions implemented based on the goal for the products. “What are your end-of-life goals? Look at the packaging and what you need it to do,” Clark stated. “We have a mission we’re proud of, and even in a situation like we’ve encountered with California we’re still going to move forward with our goal of being a complete environmental-solutions technology provider based on the application and the end-of-life goals for the products. Today we have solutions for compostable, home compostable, marine biodegradable and more. The discussion is not just a compostable versus biodegradable debate.”

Clark notes that ENSO recognizes that biodegradability is a new technology and any new technology brings with it new issues that need to be dealt with. “We want to move toward more legitimacy for this process by having new test protocols about biodegradability and then validating that,” he said. “That’s key. How do you validate the claims that you’re making?”

Clark knows there are no easy answers to this debate. “I don’t know that it’s going away any time soon,” he told PlasticsToday. “Banning words isn’t the answer, but there’s no simple discussion when talking about the environment. We have to be smarter about things and educate consumers. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll have a solution to solve it all, but it requires thought and effort to make the right choices for where the product ends up.”

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