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Degradables continue to lose favor.

Degradables Continue to Lose Favor

As reported last month (p. 175), degradable plastics are losing support among environmentalists and legislators who not long ago were hailing them as the answer to the plastics solid-waste question. This month, the trend continues: EPA released a study showing that degradables do not reduce landfill volume; a well-known environmental group issued a report calling degradable plastics a "scam"; and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it will ask companies to substantiate claims that their products are degradable.


EPA's report, "Methods to Manage and Control Plastic Waste," concludes that degradable plastics will not alleviate the landfill-capacity crunch. The report says that while benefits of degradables may exist, more information on degradation rates and byproducts is necessary before appropriate applications for the materials can be identified. EPA has begun research to gather this information. Interim results are expected by mid-summer.

A study issued by Greenpeace U.S.A., Washington, D.C., entitled "Breaking Down the Degradable Plastics Scam," concludes that insufficient evidence is available to support manufacturers' claims that degradables are environmentally beneficial. In fact, it says, there may be potential for further harm.

Alan Kemper, president of the National Corn Grower's Association, St. Louis, advocates of cornstarch as a biodegradable filler for plastics, says Greenpeace's report is "a great collection of myths" that conveniently ignores much of the current data on degradable plastics. According to Kemper, one of the most desirable uses for biodegradable plastics is in composting bags used to collect yard waste, which currently takes up an estimated 20-30% of the nation's landfill space. "Our ultimate goal is to produce biodegradable plastics from 100% renewable corn products, and research by several leading U.S. companies suggests this is a near-term reality," adds Kemper.

Despite recent negative publicity about degradables, industry sources expect annual sales of biodegradable plastic products to grow from 50 million lb in 1987 to 850 million lb/yr by 1992.


A problem facing manufacturers of degradable plastics has become the definition of "degradability." The FTC and eight state attorneys general have asked a number of companies to substantiate claims that their products are bio- or photodegradable, recyclable, harmless to the ozone, or generally "environmentally safe."

FTC Chairman Janet D. Steiger says claims of biodegradability "can be valuable to the public, but consumers who buy 'environmentally friendly' products in hope of bettering the environment cannot judge whether such products will deliver the promised benefits."

Reportedly prompted by FTC's investigation, Mobil Chemical Co., Pittsford, N.Y., manufacturer of Hefty garbage bags, says it will delete references to degradability on its packages in response to confusion regarding the term's meaning. The claim may be reinstated later if some widely recognized definition is found for the word "degradable," company officials say. They add that Mobil will continue to incorporate a photodegradable additive in its bags.

The issue of a "degradable" definition is being taken up in New York, where Assemblyman Gary Proud's bill would give the state's Department of Environmental Conservation authority to issue degradability standards that conform to nationally recognized criteria, where such exist. Standards would specify how much a material will break down under normal disposal conditions, time required for substantial degradation, and if the degraded material's byproducts are hazardous to the environment.
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Title Annotation:Regulatory Update
Author:Monks, Richard
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:May 1, 1990
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