Compostable Plastics And Environmental Marketing Claims

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

According to a bottled water survey conducted by Perception Research Services International (PRS) for Brand Packaging published in August 2011, where shoppers were interviewed in person to gain some insights on marketing claims, environmental and recycling messages were misunderstood and not even noticed by a majority of consumers interviewed. In fact, only 50 out of 200 shoppers even noticed the environmental marketing claims placed on packaging.

The clearest message that was understood by shoppers was the claim for “100% recyclable bottle” message on the Dasani water bottle packaging that surrounds the bottles (e.g. 24-pack wrapper). Other messages on the packaging, including “plant-bottle,” “one percent for the planet,” and “eco-bottle” were confusing for shoppers. They didn’t know what they meant.

This survey is indicative of the huge gap in what consumers understand and what marketers of compostable or sustainable products need to communicate. Current marketing messages have low level visibility and consumer engagement, identifying a need to improve environmental marketing claims made on packaging. According to Brand Packaging, a major problem is that manufacturers are investing in sustainable packaging but are not consistently reaching consumers about packaging recycling.

Environmental marketing communication is a credible touch point with consumers at the point of purchase. It provides an opportunity for brand owners to educate consumers about the compostable materials used in their products and packaging through concise environmental claims made on the product or package — which must clearly link the brand’s choice of material with its environmental benefit and its proper disposal method.

Providing truthful and meaningful marketing claims linked with education builds trust with consumers who have the purchasing power, a high degree of environmental awareness, and potential strong influence through social media channels. This is an opportunity for the compostable products industry to take a leadership role in consumer education, tapping into a growing interest in composting and use of compostable products.

Compostable waste stream management techniques and innovations are already in the marketplace. Examples include Randy’s Environmental Services’ Blue Bag organics — a curbside subscription-based cocollection program in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region. Randy’s Blue Bag is a compostable bag for source separated organics, including food waste and yard trimmings. The company cocollects trash in conventional bags and organics in the blue bag on the same truck, and then separates the bags at its MRF. The Green Sports Alliance organizes Zero Waste sports venues where closed loop capture of organics and compostable packaging can be achieved, while also creating a direct educational opportunity with consumers (albeit the consumers are raging sports fans that need to be engaged during a live sporting event). Industry associations are launching packaging coalitions and alliances to propagate business-to-business awareness and education.

FTC Green Guides

Over the last decade, consumers have been baffled by green washing — far reaching self-declared environmental claims and a barrage of certification logos. This makes it difficult for consumers to understand the meaning of the claims and how they should properly dispose of the product and packaging. Because of the potential for consumer confusion about these claims, the government — primarily the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — stepped in to provide guidance that fundamentally benefits both consumers and businesses.

Since 1992 the FTC has provided direction on the general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims — both from the perspective of how consumers are most likely to interpret particular claims, and how marketers can substantiate and qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers. Now officially known as the Green Guides on its website, the FTC began formally revising these guidelines in 2010. The final revised guidelines were released on October 1, 2012.

The Green Guides apply not only to advertising (magazine, newspapers, radio, TV) but also to the advertiser’s website, product packaging and marketing literature (including tradeshow brochures). According to the FTC, “a marketer claiming that an item is compostable should have competent and reliable scientific evidence that all the materials in the item will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (e.g. soil conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner (i.e., in approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted) in an appropriate composting facility, or in a home compost pile or device.”

The FTC also states that “to avoid deception about the limited availability of municipal or institutional composting facilities, a marketer should clearly and prominently qualify compostable claims if such facilities are not available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the item is sold.” FTC staff informally has interpreted substantial majority to mean at least 60 percent.

For over seven years Fabri-Kal (FK) has sold its Greenware® products in the state of Vermont, specifically, its line of cold drink cups that bear the environmental marketing claim of 100% compostable. The FK Greenware website states that Greenware cold drink cups are “BPI certified to be 100% compostable in actively managed municipal or industrial facilities, which may not be available in your area. Not suitable for backyard composting.” The Greenware marketing claim as written meets the FTC Green Guides. But according to the Vermont State Attorney General Office (AG), the wording on the individual cups was not adequate as it didn’t include a label stating “not suitable for home composting,” nor was it indicated that the cups needed to be composted in a commercial facility — even though FK provided the mandated qualification language on its website, literature and packaging, and used the word “compostable” on the cups. The AG mandated that if the word “compostable” is used that the full qualification language must be included on the product itself (the clear plastic cold drink cup) as well as the statement, “Not suitable for backyard composting.” The AG stated that if products are labeled compostable then they should be compostable within a reasonable period of time in the backyard or in a commercial facility accessible to most residents. Unfortunately a majority of Vermont’s residents do not have access to municipal or commercial composting facilities, and many Vermont residents like to compost in their backyard according to the AG.

The requirement to include full marketing claim statements on the bottom of a clear thermoformed cup was a condition that FK could not meet. Therefore the manufacturer made the decision to remove the word “compostable” from the product line to avoid the added language requirements that would not have been technically feasible to add to the clear plastic drink cup. This essentially removed all identification from the product to aid consumers and composters with identifying what is and is not a compostable product.

FTC guidelines about degradability include “degradable, biodegradable, oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, or photo-degradable.” The FTC applies all its rules to each claim. It reports that it has challenged biodegradability claims more than any other specific claim addressed by its Green Guides. FTC states “it is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid waste stream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal. Unqualified degradable claims for items that are customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities are deceptive because these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.”

In 2011, the state of California filed suit against three plastic companies that make plastic bottles or sell bottled water in California that claimed their plastic bottles were “biodegradable.” The companies sued were Aquamantra, Balance Water and ENSO Plastics. All three companies had bottles made with an oxo-degradable additive intended to promote biodegradability. The companies were falsely claiming their bottles would biodegrade in less than five years, leaving behind no harmful materials. The Huffington Post reported the lawsuit was the first government action to enforce the state’s environmental marketing law that was enacted in 2008 and bans use of words like “biodegradable,” “degradable” or “decomposable” in labeling, a law that will expand to all plastic products beginning in 2013.

The FTC Green Guides are presented in a cogent and easy to understand format. The Green Guides contain many specific examples meant to give clear guidance to marketers to avoid consumer deception and/or confusion. It’s a must read for any product marketer looking to position products with an environmental product claim. However, as illustrated in the Vermont example, adherence to the Green Guides alone has not proved sufficient in all cases.

Nonfood Packaging Marketing Claims

The National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) is the advertising industry’s self-regulatory forum that investigates claims made in national advertising for truthfulness and accuracy. It inspects the credibility of a marketer’s green claims. Like the FTC, the NAD requires that product performance claims made in advertising be supported by competent and reliable evidence.

In 2010 a case involved FP International, a company making a loosefill (packaging peanuts) packing material called “Biodegradable Super 8” made from recycled polystyrene. Polystyrene comes from a petroleum feedstock, and is not a bioplastic and not biodegradable (see Part 1 of this article, “Bioplastics Industry Report,” August 2012). NAD was investigating FP’s claim that the Biodegradable Super 8 Loosefill product was biodegradable and would “decompose completely within 9 to 60 months” in a landfill or if littered on the ground. FP’s product was made with an oxo-degradable additive that required air to degrade the plastic into fragments. NAD also examined some of FP’s general claims, including that the products were more environmentally friendly than products made from starch.

NAD concluded that FP had not fully supported its biodegradable claims. The litmus test for supporting biodegradable claims is whether the product can biodegrade in a reasonable amount of time in a landfill (with no air or light), the “customary disposal” destination for most trash. FP asserted the claim was qualified, that the packaging peanuts would biodegrade “within 9 to 60 months in the presence of microorganisms, regardless if sent to a landfill or ends up as litter buried in soil.” NAD recommended that FP discontinue use of the term “Biodegradable” in its product trade name and to discontinue use of the biodegradable claim as the substantiation for biodegradability in landfill conditions was only for the oxo-additive and not for the product itself.

USDA Biopreferred Program

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) BioPreferred® program promotes “the increased purchase and use of biobased products” and “designates categories of biobased products for a Federal Procurement preference.” It includes compostable products such as compostable bags, disposable cutlery, plates, cold and hot drink cups, food containers and food portion cups. The program benefits the compostables market by increasing federal procurement of compostable products for use in public areas and municipal buildings.

According to the 2002 Farm Bill, “biobased products are commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products, renewable agricultural materials (including plant, animal and marine materials), or forestry materials.” It extended the definition of biobased products to include “biobased intermediate ingredients or feedstocks.” In a recent press release, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explained that the BioPreferred program “is being tailored to supplement production of products from new farm-based sources such as corn stover, soybeans, switchgrass, wood, camelina, energy cane, municipal solid waste, yellow oils, algae, and other nonfood feedstocks, supporting economic expansion, and creating jobs from the farm to the finished product.”

The BioPreferred program has two initiatives: A preferred procurement program for federal agencies and their contractors, and a voluntary labeling program for the broad scale consumer marketing of biobased products. The BioPreferred label is a tool for consumers to understand they are purchasing a product with biobased content. It is designed to communicate biobased content of a product or package, but does not communicate proper disposal. This presents an opportunity for the compostable products industry to work in tandem with the USDA BioPreferred Program on consumer education, the advantages of food diversion and use of compostable products.

In conclusion, valid marketing claims (labeling and identification) along with education are crucial to growing the market for compostable products. There is a key difference between offering compostable products and consumers having access to composting programs. The FTC has placed responsibility for environmental claims squarely on the marketers. The industry should continue to strive for clarity in messaging, consumer education, and have full knowledge about the waste management infrastructure that exists in the communities where compostables are to be marketed. Programs like the USDA BioPreferred should be sought as a companion label to reinforce public awareness of biobased compostable products.

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