When the California Coastal Commission was getting ready for its annual beach cleanup in September, it wanted environmentally friendly trash bags to hold the refuse that 47,000 volunteers would collect. So the agency bought 100,000 biodegradable plastic garbage bags.
Or at least that's what CCC thought it was buying. The agency was told the bags were certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, and they were custom-printed with logos of both CCC and BPI.
Instead, the agency paid $22,000 for what tests have shown are apparently regular, nonbiodegradable trash bags made from linear low density polyethylene, according to Chris Parry, the agency's public education program manager.
``There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the bags are not what they claim,'' Parry said.
CCC has referred the matter to the California attorney general, and BPI is pursuing a trademark infringement complaint. It is not clear who is responsible for the mislabeled bags.
For some, CCC's case is an example of why California regulators need to take a more active role in monitoring the biodegradable plastics industry. They point to misleading claims and Federal Trade Commission scrutiny of biodegradable plastics a decade ago, and say that new technologies coming on the market should be careful not to repeat that ugly history.
Officials with the California Integrated Waste Management Board held a hearing Oct. 27 in Sacramento to explore what role the government should play in the rapidly developing market, in particular looking at the role of biodegradables in reducing litter and solid waste.
While the hearing was largely an information session for the agency, some speakers suggested that the waste board or other state agencies should take an active role in developing standards or certification.
Frank Ruiz, technical director of Heritage Bag Co. in Carrollton, Texas, said government needs to be involved because the bag industry is very competitive.
``We compete with each other and with materials from China,'' he said. ``The temptation to cheat is incredible. If we don't hold plastic to rigid national standards, we'll have chaos.''
Ruiz said the only workable national standard at this point is based on ASTM 6400-99, which BPI uses to certify products. Without specific standards, he said, the biodegradables market could see a flood of imports making questionable claims.
He said Heritage has started to test different materials because it believes the market for biodegradables will grow.
A spokeswoman for the California Film Extruders and Converters Association in Newport Beach said there is a role for the state in adopting clear definitions based on national standards and specifications, as a way to avoid the black eye that biodegradables got a decade ago.
Steven Mojo, executive director of New York-based BPI, said California is interested in biodegradables because it wants to compost more food waste to meet targets of diverting 50 percent of its garbage from landfills.
Regular plastic bags can cause problems in composting, Mojo said. The city of San Francisco composts food waste and requires that if people use plastic bags, they use only BPI-certified bags, he said.
Mojo said any state action should be based on scientifically developed national specifications such as ASTM 6400-99. Other technologies, like masterbatch additives or oxo-biodegradables, do not have the same rigorous specifications, he said.
But Phil Ragan, managing director of Plastics Solutions Inc., said any rules should be flexible enough to recognize new technology.
His Vancouver, British Columbia-based company uses oxo-biodegradable technology, which mineralizes polymers more slowly than the BPI certification requires. He acknowledged that suppliers of oxo-biodegradable technology are not as far along as BPI in developing standards, but said they have developed a guide that will form the basis of a future standard.
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said the waste board should look at the potential impact of biodegradable materials on the recycling stream, and he said California should consider an enforcement program for biodegradability claims because the FTC has not been very active.