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Biodegradable Plastic Sheet and Foam: Is It What You Think?

If you are considering purchasing biodegradable plastic sheet or foam, does your supplier’s claim meet your understanding of the term “biodegradable”? To what specifications has it been tested and documented? Is the product what you expect? Does it meet marketing claims laws in your area?

Eco-Friendly Terms Proliferating without Standard Definitions

In today’s marketing environment, terms such as “green,” “environmentally friendly,” “biodegradable,” “compostable,” or “eco-friendly” are proliferating. These terms can be difficult to define and substantiate for both buyers and sellers, leading to confusion and the potential for misleading or false claims. There is a lack of industry and government definitions and enforcement. Not everyone uses or understands the terms in the same way. What does each word mean? How do you measure it? How do you know if claims are accurate and true?

ASTM Specifications

ASTM International has specifications for determining whether a plastic product may be certified as “degradable” or “compostable.” ASTM D6400 specifies that biodegradable products completely decompose in a composting setting at a rate comparable to known compostable materials, leaving behind no harmful residues. Keep in mind that this specification is not all-encompassing. It does not address all types of degradation, nor does it take into account the variables in real-world composting facilities or in natural environments such as marine locations. ASTM D6400 was not meant to be a universal test for biodegradability. The organization is working on adding more specifications that will be helpful going forward, but even so, they have no control over how terms are used by the plastics industry, by consumers, by the media or the government. Some manufacturers may reference other ASTM standards instead of ASTM D6400 in marketing their biodegradable plastic products. This can be misleading, as the other ASTM standards referenced may address testing methods and procedures to be followed, but might not address any requirements for the material to “pass” the test to disintegrate into dirt.

Other Definitions of “Biodegradable Plastic”

Other manufacturers may claim their plastic sheet or foam is biodegradable, using the definition that the material breaks down into tiny particles. It degrades and fragments, but never truly goes away and stays in the environment. It is possible this might create more harm than larger pieces, because the contaminants are too small to be visible. Does this match your definition of biodegradable?

Other biodegradable plastic sheet or foam may fully decompose in years rather than months, or may partially biodegrade but not 100%. Is there anything wrong with that? According to whom? Does this meet your definition? Does it meet your company, city or state requirements if they exist? Can it be processed by your composting facility or does it have to go directly to the landfill?

You can see how there is so much confusion. Sellers may not understand the best way to describe and label their products, while others may intentionally publish misleading or false claims. Buyers may not understand the terms they are using when requesting biodegradable plastics. Politicians may not understand the terms when writing laws governing affected industries. The media may not understand all the variables when reporting. Product may not be processed in the ideal way at the composting facility, so the material may end up as landfill anyway.

Finding Your Way through the Confusion

Require that your supplier produce documentation that the claims are scientifically supported. Do your research. Understand your own concerns and definition of “biodegradable.” If you are satisfied with your supplier’s definition and claims, remember to consider whether the product will perform as needed in your application, as additives mixed in with the plastic resin may reduce the performance or life of the plastic. You may also wish to know if the product is recyclable, or will it need to be separated from recyclable plastics and go directly to the landfill.

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