Biodegradable plastics trade groups in the United States, Germany and Japan have taken what they say is a key step in their effort to develop common standards for certifying products as biodegradable.
The Biodegradable Products Institute in New York and its German and Japanese counterparts agreed April 4 to recognize approved laboratories in each country, letting manufacturers save money by using test results from one lab for certification in all three countries.
The three groups also said they are continuing talks to develop common standards and recognize each other's labeling programs, which they hope will help to restore consumer confidence in biodegradable products.
``The goal is to have one certification, one set of tests used all around the world,'' said Steve Mojo, BPI executive director.
Certifications in the three countries already are similar, but participants said there are some differences to work out.
Kazushi Ohshima, general manager of the Biodegradable Plastics Society of Japan in Tokyo, said in an e-mail that differences include the amount of heavy metals allowed, the criteria for measuring biodegradability and the absence of composting criteria in the Japanese system. He said he hopes solutions can be found.
The U.S. group and the German organization, known as Din Certco, measure biodegradability that takes place within composting to make sure it does not harm plants grown in that soil.
The Japanese system, by contrast, measures biodegradability outside of a composting environment, said Ramani Narayan, chairman of BPI's scientific advisory committee and a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.
The U.S. standard, ASTM D-6400, calls for 60 percent of a single polymer material to degrade in 180 days. A multipolymer material must degrade by 90 percent in that time. Germany's standard is similar, but the European Union has a tougher requirement for 90 percent biodegradability in all cases, Narayan said.
``As we gain more experience and more data comes on board, this will automatically sort itself out,'' he said.
Standards are crucial because the biodegradable plastics industry has a somewhat tarnished reputation in the United States, left over from investigations by state and federal authorities into misleading biodegradability claims, Narayan said. He said the U.S. industry has presented the standard to U.S. authorities.
Mojo said another question is whether to develop a common logo. That effort could be complicated because each group controls its own logo and the fees that go with them.
Just one company, BioCorp. Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., has passed the BPI test in the United States, but several others, including Eastman Chemical Co. and Cargill Dow LLC, are close to getting products approved, Narayan said.
Participants hope that further development of standards will pave the way for growth in the market. Ohshima said the market for biodegradable plastics in Japan grew more than threefold between 1998 and 2001, to about 13 million pounds. He estimates the market will reach 44 million pounds next year.
The groups also noted in their joint statement that the city of Kassel, Germany, is in the midst of the world's largest demonstration project for biodegradable plastics. The city of about 200,000 is trying to get consumers to sort food scraps into biodegradable bags and put biodegradable packaging like grocery sacks and butter packaging into a compost waste stream, in part to reduce greenhouse gases.