Many of the 200,000 students in the Houston Independent School District the seventh-largest public school system in the United States this school year are eating meals served on polystyrene trays containing an additive designed to make them biodegradable.
The new trays which cost the district about $300,000 are part of the enviroware line of PS and polypropylene dinnerware containing an active organic catalyst from Dispoz-o Products Inc. The Fountain Inn, S.C., firm's products can be found at Brigham Young University and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as schools and pro sports teams buy into the green consumer movement that's helping spur interest in alternative and modified resins among plastics processors.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., Hermann Plank, founder of TechnoKal, imports European plastic dinnerware and packaging made from potato starch. His latest product, shopping bags, is gaining interest because of the ongoing public debate over plastic bags in municipalities. ``It's proven it has the same mechanical properties as high-density polyethylene,'' Plank said in a Sept. 15 telephone interview.
Everywhere you look, processors are going green and marketers are having a field day as they seek to outdo each other's claims about green-ness.
As the debate rages over which plastics are best for the environment, making claims they can back up about ``biodegradable'' vs. ``compostable'' products has become a sore point between competing companies.
``It's very confusing still,'' Plank said. ``Everybody in the U.S. is green. But [in reality] 99 percent out of 100 are far, far from being green.''
Companies marketing products frequently cite standards developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials for biodegradability and compostability of plastics.
Joel Longstreth, one of the owners of St. Louis-based Brentwood Plastics Inc., makers of Regresa biodegradeable PE films, likens the atmosphere surrounding the marketing to that of the so-called ``War of the Currents'' during the 1880s. That battle involved Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse putting forth competing claims over the best form of electricity for commercial use: Edison's direct current or Westinghouse's alternating current (Westinghouse and his chief engineer, Nikola Tesla, won that fight).
This time around, nobody's going to the same lengths Edison did he hooked up several animals, including, famously, a circus elephant, to AC wires and filmed the resulting electrocutions, to convince the public his DC was the safest form of electric power but the green plastics debate carries more than a whiff of burned egos and singed scientific theories. And it boils down to the polylactic acid camp vs. the secret-ingredient active organic-additive crowd.
``PLA has done an excellent job of selling by spec by convincing the state of California, Whole Foods and others that ASTM D6400 is the only way to go,'' Longstreth said in a July 16 e-mail. Products that conform to the D6954 standard, which allows for slower breakdown of materials, won't get through, he said.
Steve Mojo, executive director of the New York-based Biodegradable Products Institute, said in a July 16 e-mail the ASTM D6400 standard, which says products must disintegrate in a 12-week period under composting conditions, is the better test of eco-friendliness. ``There is no data to show that products which blend additives to PE, PP or PS will completely biodegrade in landfills or when composted [under] other real-world conditions in a reasonable amount of time,'' he said.
In a Sept. 19 e-mail, Joe Green, a professor at California State University at Chico who was hired by the state to identify the best plastic, said he settled on Telles' Mirel bioplastic after an exhaustive series of tests.
``For biodegradability, people and businesses should look for the BPI logo and the term `compostable' rather than `biodegradable,''' he said. ``Also, stay away from products that are not compostable or claim that they are partially biodegradable. In my view, the truly biodegradable plastic is 100 percent biodegradable in one growing season, or 180 days. They should not accept plastics are partially biodegradable. It is like someone claiming to be partially pregnant. Either you are 100 percent biodegradable in one growing season or you are not.''
For the record, Dispoz-O claims enviroware, the material mentioned at the top of this story, meets ASTM D5209, D5338 and D5511 standards for biodegradability.
Grenidea, a Singapore-based bioplastics company, recently launched its AgroResin lines, featuring multicolored food trays made from waste palm oil. They're being marketed in North America by PWP Industries of Vernon, Calif. ``The variety of vibrant colors opens up exciting new possibilities for the use of the already-popular packaging,'' said Scott Sanders, PWP's director of new business development, in an Aug. 21 news release. Left unsaid is any mention of the standards used to back up the firm's biodegradability claims.
MHI Packaging Inc. of Teterboro, N.J., markets GoodEarth, an active organic catalyst that can be added to a rage of plastics, including PET, PP and PVC, to enhance their breakdown in air-rich environments. MHI's Web site and marketing materials rely on testing conducted in 1997 and 1998 by ChemRisk of Cleveland. When asked during a July 16 telephone interview why MHI hasn't conducted further testing, spokesman Joseph DeFelice said, ``Our product doesn't meet ASTM D5400. Otherwise, our results were verified. Nothing has changed.''
Some firms particularly those in Europe and Asia tout the International Organization for Standardization 15855 and Europe's EN 13432 as being the highest and best standards. That's what Hong Kong-based compounder Ngai Hing Hong Co. Ltd. said it would do when it launched its NHH Biodegradable Plastics Co. Ltd. division at the K 2007 show.
Austrian-born Hermann Plank said it's time for the plastics industry to make up its collective mind about which standards become part of the industry canon.
``The Europeans think they should take the best of both things to create a common [standard],'' he said ``I don't care where it comes from; I just want to see new products come into the market.''
The Society of the Plastic Industry Inc. is working with the Federal Trade Commission to develop guidelines for processors seeking to market their claims in a responsible way, said Bill Carteaux, the Washington-based trade group's president, in a Sept. 21 speech at the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Conference in Minneapolis. Those guidelines will be unveiled at Sustain '08, a Nov. 5-7 conference in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the march toward bioplastics and materials containing post-consumer content continues.
Pregis Corp. said July 15 it has engineered Astro-Bubble Green, which the company said is the first-ever bubble wrap to contain up to 40 percent post-consumer linear low density PE. On Aug, 21, Associated Packaging Technologies of Chadds Ford, Pa., partnered with ConAgra Foods to market recycled PET frozen food trays containing 30-40 percent RPET.
Jim Lunt, founder of new products commercialization consultancy Jim Lunt & Associates LLC and a former founding member of NatureWorks PLA said in a July 11 e-mail biodegradability and compostability will continue to be ``thorny'' issues in the plastics industry, but they will drive the discussion about alternative materials. ``I see in Europe, Australia and New Zealand slow but steady growth in the composting infrastructure,'' he said. ``There will also be growth in the U.S., but I believe this will be much slower.''
His firm is based in Wayzata, Minn.