Can you believe biodegradable plastics are back? The best news is that, so far, everyone has learned from past mistakes.
The work will require continued vigilance against a variety of abuses, but the efforts are encouraging.
Right now trade groups in the United States, Europe and Japan are working on common standards for certifying that a product is biodegradable. The project took a big step forward April 4, when the Biodegradable Products Institute in New York and its German and Japanese counterparts agreed to recognize approved laboratories in each country. That will allow manufacturers to save money by using test results from one lab for certification in all three countries.
The effort is praiseworthy, especially because material suppliers are being very careful to avoid being stung with any hint that they're driven by marketing aims.
The fact that suppliers and processors are thinking about serving global markets is a sign that biodegradable plastics are back from limbo.
The troubles started in 1990, when consumer advocates called for boycotts of so-called degradable trash bags, and the attorneys general of seven states filed lawsuits against some bag suppliers. The bags that caused problems contained polyethylene and weren't truly biodegradable, and some of the advertising claims weren't supported by good science. On top of that, plastic and paper bag suppliers were locked in a bitter struggle and paper industry competitors were happy to point out the deficiencies of so-called biodegradable plastics.
Still, a handful of companies didn't give up, and eventually came up with better materials. Now those products seem to be catching on. Note that Cargill Dow LLC recently disclosed that it expects to be operating its 300 million-pound-per-year biodegradable polymer plant in Blair, Neb., at full capacity by the end of the year, and officials are mulling plans for a second plant. Eastman Chemical Co. also is taking a higher profile in biodegradables. Cargill Dow and Eastman soon hope to join BioCorp. Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., which currently is the only supplier to have passed the Biodegradable Products Institute's certification test.
One problem that may hold back the promise of biodegradable plastics is the lack of a composting infrastructure in the United States. After all, biodegradation in a modern landfill is an extremely slow process, whether we're talking about plastic, metal, or even paper.
But increased use of biodegradable packaging and food-service products would make it easier to dispose of food waste in composting facilities, which could cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. Perhaps biodegradable plastics also would cut into the growing problem of ocean litter, a visible blight on beaches and at sea and a threat to some wildlife.
There could be problems with some biodegradable plastics that we can't anticipate, but the environmental pluses all seem to be good. If suppliers can bring down the price of their raw materials (without being too dependent upon agricultural price supports), they could find that the market is much more than the current niche of leaf bags, mulch films and golf tees.
The key will be for processors and suppliers to continue to be careful about the promises they make to consumers.