Expert: Consumers confused by terms like 'bio-based' and 'renewable'

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NEW YORK (July 21, 3:45 p.m. ET) — The misconceptions among consumers of what terms like bio-based and biodegradable mean pose challenges for companies putting labels on their products and their packaging.

“There are two huge misconceptions,” said Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute, at the recent Bioplastek conference in New York.

“Eighty-five percent of consumers think that bio-based/renewable also means biodegradable, and 60 percent think biodegradable products magically disappear when you throw it away,” he said. “So the message has to be clear on the package and/or your website — wherever you expect the consumer to look.

“The challenge all companies will face will be finding a way on the packaging to convey their message — especially when people are buying the product, not the packaging,” he said. “It is confusing to consumers and it is going to get more so as many people don’t understand what those words really mean.”

Part of the blame for the confusion must go back to the companies because many company messages focus on product features, not the consumer benefits, he said.

“Companies say things like biodegradable, made from corn, or made from renewable resources, instead of talking to the consumers about the benefits” of the packaging, Mojo said.

“Those are features, which are just factual statements about the product or service, but it is not the reason customers buy,” Mojo said. “Companies need to focus more on the benefits the material and packaging are bringing to their customers because a benefit adds value to the customer, and it is the reason customers will buy.”

“Focus on talking about benefits that can appeal to consumers and concepts that are easy to understand,” suggested Mojo. Among the examples he cited were messages such as: recyclable with PET bottles, reduces carbon footprint, reduces oil use by 3 million gallons of gasoline.

“Companies need to use clear messaging that is supported by data and do it in a small space,” he said. “That is clearly a challenge, but the more specific you are in your claims, the better off you will be.

“Don’t tell consumer the product is green,” Mojo said. “Tell them that it is greener than X because ....” He also suggested that companies use their packaging to direct consumers to a website that can answer their questions.

In addition, companies should question and verify claims by companies supplying them with materials or goods.

“Trust but verify,” said Mojo, “because greenwashing is more prevalent now than ever.”

Specifically, he pointed to a foodservice manufacturer that claimed its product was compostable and 100 percent renewable when it actually contained 52 percent petroleum-based polypropylene.

“The cost to your organization to verify material claims will be a small percentage of your total product cost and be worth avoiding a potential embarrassment,” Mojo said.

He also suggested that companies be particularly wary of biodegradable additive claims, saying that there is “very little data to support that additives will degrade.”

“Every single additive claim shows a small amount of biodegradation for x-period of time and then uses that to extrapolate” when the material will be gone, Mojo said. “But you cannot extrapolate the biological degradation process. That is scientifically unsound.”

A case in point: BPI contracted this year to have two separate sets of tests conducted on the Aquamantra water bottle sold by that Dana Point, Calif.-based company which uses an additive from Enso Bottles LLC.

The first test done for BPI showed that the degradation process plateaued after 60 days; the second showed no degradation at all after 45 days.

“They did a 30-day test and extrapolated that the material will biodegrade in four years,” said Mojo. “Run your own tests. Know what you are getting into. There are no end-of-life magic additives for products or packaging.”

The Bioplastek conference was organized by Schotland Business Research Inc.