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At SPE’s thermoforming conference, a voice questions 'biodegradability'

After materials pricing and the challenge of globalization, it would be hard to find a hotter topic in the plastics industry than sustainability. But the terminology used in that realm is often too "fast and loose" for some experts' tastes, including those of Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University. During the recent Society of Plastics Engineers' thermoforming conference in Milwaukee, he railed against the improper use of "biodegradable," and his words found firm footing with many of the attendees.

 "The problem is that people are claiming that all you do is put in an additive into the plastics and the material will magically disappear," said Narayan. "Biodegradable is a misused and abused term. What we need is an end-of-life strategy."

Still, he acknowledged that the pubic relations' strength of the word biodegradability carries a lot of weight. "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."

According to Narayan, too much flagrant "green washing" is occurring, with companies announcing eco-claims for the products that cannot be backed up with facts. "There are so many misleading biodegradable claims in the marketplace. In high school you'd be failed for creating a chart like this," he said as he held up a chart listing some of what he called the so-called facts of biodegradability.

Narayan argued that the industry should focus more of its energy on recycling and waste-to-energy conversion, saying these are "the best use of plastics." He continued, "Why is replacing petro-carbon with bio-carbon better? Carbon is carbon. There is organic carbon and inorganic carbon. It takes 10 years to turn an inorganic carbon into an organic carbon through biodegradability." Clare Goldsberry

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