Misconceptions among consumers about what terms like bio-based and biodegradable mean pose huge challenges in labeling products and packaging.
“There are two huge misconceptions,” said Steve Mojo, executive director of the New York-based Biodegradable Products Institute.
“Eighty-five percent of consumers think that ‘bio-based/renewable' also means ‘biodegradable,' and 60 percent think biodegradable products magically disappear when you throw it away,” Mojo said at the recent BioPlastek conference in New York. “So the message has to be clear on the package and/or your website — wherever you expect the consumer to look.”
All companies face the challenge of finding a way to convey their message on the packaging — “especially when people are buying the product, not the packaging,” Mojo said. “It is confusing to consumers and it is going to get more so — as many people don't understand what those words really mean.”
Part of the confusion can be traced to the companies themselves because of the focus of their messages, he said. “Companies say things like ‘biodegradable,' ‘made from corn,' or ‘made from renewable resources,' instead of talking to the consumers about the benefits” of the packaging, Mojo said.
Those features are simply factual statements about the product or service — “not the reason customers buy,” he said.
Instead, companies must home in on added-value benefits that the material and packaging bring to customers. “Focus on talking about benefits that can appeal to consumers and concepts that are easy to understand,” Mojo said. As examples, he cited such messages as: ‘recyclable with PET bottles,' ‘reduces carbon footprint,' ‘reduces oil use by 3 million gallons of gasoline.'
“Don't tell consumers the product is ‘green.' Tell them that it is greener than X because ...,” he said. “Companies need to use clear messaging that is supported by data and do it in a small space. That is clearly a challenge. But, the more specific you are in your claims, the better off you will be.”
Mojo also suggested using packaging to direct consumers to websites that can answer their questions.
Also, he emphasized that companies should question and verify claims by those supplying them with materials or goods. “Trust but verify,” said Mojo, “because greenwashing is more prevalent now than ever.”
Specifically, he pointed to a food-service manufacturer that claimed its product was compostable and 100 percent renewable when the product actually contained 52 percent petroleum-based polypropylene.
“The cost to your organization to verify material claims will be a small percentage of your total product cost and be worth avoiding a potential embarrassment,” Mojo said.
Companies should be particularly wary of biodegradable additive claims, since there is “very little data to support that additives will degrade,” he warned.
“Every single additive claim shows a small amount of biodegradation for X-period of time and then uses that to extrapolate [when the material will be gone]. But you cannot extrapolate the biological degradation process. That is scientifically unsound.”
A case in point: BPI contracted this year to have two separate sets of tests conducted on the water bottle used by Aquamantra Inc. of Dana Point, Calif. The Aquamantra bottle uses an additive from Enso Bottles LLC.
The first test showed a plateau in the degradation process after 60 days; the second showed no degradation at all after 45 days.
“They did a 30-day test and extrapolated that the material will biodegrade in four years,” Mojo said.
“Run your own tests. Know what you are getting into. There are no end-of-life magic additives for products or packaging.”
The BioPlastek conference in New York ran June 27-29. It was organized by Schotland Business Research Inc.