Biodegradable. That's a catchword you may not have heard for awhile.
Ten years ago, marketing specialists were champing at the bit to use it on packaging and in advertising. Plastic bag makers were under intense pressure to introduce degradable products, thanks to heavy pressure from competitors in the paper industry.
Enter Mobil Chemical Co. As early as 1988, Mobil officials expressed concern over the lack of industry standards to qualify products as photodegradable or biodegradable.
``Manufacturers are facing increasing pressures to provide degradable plastic products,'' Robert J. Barrett, Mobil Chemical's general manager for solid waste management solutions, said in a news release at the time. ``We believe these pressures are generated by a lack of understanding of the nation's solid waste problem.''
To combat the problem, the company set up a toll-free information line to explain to consumers how its plastic grocery bags could be disposed of safely.
But Barrett added that Mobil ``will also supply bags made with degradable additives as a premium product if there is sufficient demand from our customers.''
Mobil finally jumped on the degradable bandwagon in June 1989, making a line of Hefty bags with a cornstarch additive.
The bags were packaged in green boxes with an eagle and a pine tree on the front with the term ``degradable.'' On the back: an explanation of how Hefty bags would break down into ``harmless particles,'' even after being buried in a landfill.
But the ``green'' Hefty bags had a short shelf life. In March 1990, after consumer advocates called for a nationwide boycott of products claiming to be degradable, Mobil voluntarily discontinued the Hefty degradable packaging.
Three months later, Mobil was named in lawsuits filed by the attorneys general of seven states for allegedly misleading consumers with its degradability claims. Mobil settled with Texas immediately, and paid more than $150,000 to California, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin in 1991.
First Brands Corp., maker of Glad trash bags, also was being scrutinized, by the Federal Trade Commission. And other companies were under the gun: American Enviro Products Inc. and RMED International Inc., which were selling biodegradable diapers; and Tech Spray and Jerome Russell Cosmetics, which were making claims that their products were not harmful to the ozone.
What had started out as a promising new industry had quickly fizzled.
In 1988, Freedonia Group Inc. of Cleveland had predicted that degradable plastic production would reach 1.95 billion pounds in 2000. By 1997, the firm amended the prediction to 475 million pounds by 2001.
``Previous high-growth expectations proved overly optimistic,'' Freedonia researchers admitted in the updated study.
Lack of growth was caused by ``the inability to significantly lower prices, develop industry degradability standards, establish a viable composting infrastructure or enact stimulative legislation,'' the study surmised.
So, what really happened to the push for biodegradables?
First, studies of landfills revealed that even degradable plastic bags do not degrade in landfills. In fact, nothing — not even paper — can degrade in a properly designed and constructed landfill because the waste is rarely exposed to sun, water and air.
Second, consumers became and remain skeptical of ``environmentally friendly'' claims, according to Frederic Scheer of Biocorp Inc., a California company that still makes biodegradable and compostable bags and utensils.
``I will never understand the zeal of the FTC to kill the [biodegradable plastics] industry,'' said Jeffrey Bornstein, director of Strategic Analysis Inc. of Reading, Pa., and former co-owner of a degradable plastics business.
``Consumers were totally confused ... and demand dried up.''
Third, money. Staying on the biodegradables bandwagon means long-term investments of large sums of money, often without a glimmer of hope for a return on those investments.
Several former degradable plastics kingpins quietly have abandoned their businesses in recent months. Monsanto Co. has halted production of Biopol, a material that even was used in credit cards backed by Greenpeace. Monsanto cited lack of market support for the premium-priced material.
ACX Technologies, a spinoff of the Adolf Coors Co., also allowed its degradable plastics unit, Chronopol, to die without fanfare. Its latest quarterly report simply states: ``As of Sept. 30, 1998, the operations of this project have ceased and the equipment is being sold.''
The whole brouhaha was unfortunate, Bornstein said, because ``we were all actively pursuing better and better stuff.''
Bornstein said he believes that scientists doing the research for companies in the plastics industry ``were environmentalists at heart.''
``I think they really thought these industries didn't care,'' Bornstein said. ``Yeah we wanted to make money, but we wanted to protect the environment, too. They couldn't have been more insulting and more wrong.''