Some bag makers misrepresent the standard for biodegradable plastics in marketing their wares, and the actions could hurt compostable recycling efforts.
``There are processors shipping bags that do not meet ASTM D6400,'' said Steve Mojo, executive director of the New York-based Biodegradable Products Institute.
West Conshohocken, Pa.-based ASTM International has a standard, among others, setting the criteria for identifying whether a plastic is biodegradable.
Observers say an improperly labeled bag entering a recycling waste stream has the potential to contaminate a compost pile.
``The scofflaws who are advertising biodegradable bags cite [ASTM D6400] Section 3.1.1, which is simply a statement of terminology,'' said Kevin Kelly, chief executive officer of Emerald Packaging Inc. in Union City, Calif. ``To comply with the standard, you must meet the requirements in Sections 5 and 6.''
Robert Bateman, president of Roplast Industries Inc. of Oroville, Calif., said many suppliers are mislabeling their bags.
``A number of suppliers are labeling [polyethylene] bags with additives as being biodegradable with a disregard for the California law and common sense,'' he said. ``Some [suppliers] are hiding behind their lawyers and not providing independent data.''
Both men are former presidents of the California Film Extruders and Converters Association.
In 2004, with strong industry input, California enacted a law limiting use of the terms ``biodegradable,'' ``degradable'' and ``compostable'' to packaging that meets the ASTM standard on compostability requirements. So far, no violators have been formally cited.
Some processors simply ignore the law, Kelly said.
To prove his point, Kelly paid $350 for Advanced Materials Center Inc. of Ottawa, Ill., an independent testing laboratory, to test an apple bag's overwrap film. The bag label claimed the resin was biodegradable. The test result: no biodegradability.
``For years I have tested bags [independently] to show they violate various laws,'' Kelly said. ``It is the only way to get enforcement on issues.''
The California Integrated Waste Management Board has interest in the subject and commissioned Joseph Greene, a professor at Chico State University in Chico, Calif., to review plastic bag labeling practices and claims of biodegradability.
Greene filed a draft report with CIWMB and confirmed the label misrepresentation in the marketplace.
``There is a lot of misconception about the term biodegradability'' and a need for tougher rules, Mojo said. ``More states should follow the lead of California and have clear labeling regulations in place. These regulations should have enforcement language in them.''
Kelly said the California law needs strengthening with stiff penalties for violations.
To avoid problems, a plastics processor needs to look closely at material data sheets for resins claiming to be biodegradable.
``All products based on hydrocarbons ultimately degrade,'' Bateman said. ``As far as PE film is concerned, there is evidence that, in the end, the little pieces of plastic become water wettable and are subject to microbial action.
``However, for PE, this period is measured in decades, if the correct antioxidants are in the resin. The additives or, indeed, removing the antioxidants may reduce the period from decades to years in certain ambient conditions, but this hardly qualifies the product as biodegradable.''
Bateman called those claims irresponsible because they devalue products that are biodegradable as defined by science and law. ``Challenging the claim simply brings the whole industry into disrepute,'' he said.
While identities of violators may emerge, no enforcement mechanism exists yet.
``The use of lawyers - itself a sign that the science will not stand up on its own - makes all of us reluctant to name names, but I am sure they will come out,'' Bateman said.