There are so many terms that are bandied about nowadays when it comes to eco-friendly products (there’s another one) that we risk all of these terms becoming meaningless if we aren’t a little more careful with how we use them. If you look at various product labels, from tableware to toilet paper, many manufacturers are attempting to look green when they aren’t and have begun to engage in one of the biggest creative writing assignments of all time in coming up with new and creative ways to make products look green when they have no green attributes at all, or at least very questionable ones.
There are a few key terms that get the most airplay, and only fewer still that have any real meaning. Let’s confine this article to those terms that relate to household items and more specifically paper, plastic and molded fiber products. Most people know that many household waste items are recyclable. It has been drilled into us by our local waste companies and local governments which plastic items can be thrown into the recycling cans in various public locations and our curbside trash pickup. It is fairly common knowledge that those items will be recycled, in essence repurposed, into another product. The concept of recycling is fairly well understood by most people, so let’s not dwell on that.
One of the more confusing terms, and one that is being used less and less and even restricted by several state governments and other regulatory agencies, is the term biodegradable. While the idea of biodegradability sounds good, something that will break down into carbon and water, relatively harmless components, that is rarely the case of what actually happens in today’s landfills. Being that the landfill does not provide the sunlight and oxygen required to aid in the breakdown of the item, it may actually cause more harm. Those same conditions that restrict the breakdown of the material also contribute to the release of the methane gas in the landfill, which is a major contributor to global warming. It is believed that landfills are the third largest source of man-made methane. The first two being fossil fuel production and the farming of livestock, in that order.
One of the key terms to look for on a product package is the term compostable. Whether that refers to the package, or the contents, the term compostable has a very clear and well defined meaning. The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) provides consumers with a very good level of assurance that the items that bear its approval (BPI Certified) adhere to a strict standard of compostability, ASTM D6868, a very official sounding designation that the product or package will compost in a commercial composting facility in as little as 60 days. When something is compostable, it will break down into humus/organic matter often referred to as biomass and water. A simple, natural process that has been going on since the first plant life sprouted on the Earth. When the first leaves fell off of a tree and landed on the forest floor, organisms digested the material, broke it down and converted it to biomass so that it could replenish the dirt on the ground, and help the soil produce more growth. That process is slow and gradual. We have the ability in commercial compost facilities to accelerate that process and convert waste to biomass much more quickly nowadays.
So the moral of the story is become smarter, ask questions and understand what terms are real, what terms are meaningless, and what terms are an example of creative writing because the health and safety of our communities is what is at stake.