The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has stepped in to assist consumers by publishing “Green Guides” to clarify advertising claims and define green terms. The three definitions the Green Guides take aim at are three of the most abused terms in the green world: Biodegradable, Compostable and Recyclable.
According to the FTC’s Green Guides, a product is biodegradable as long as it “will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” In other words, the item will continue to disintegrate into small pieces until micro-organisms consume it.
For an item to be marked compostable, the Green Guide states there must be scientific evidence that the materials in the item break down, or become part of, usable compost in a safe and timely manner in an appropriate composting facility or home compost pile.
The main difference between biodegradable and compostable is the latter breaks down into “humus,” which provides valuable nutrients to the soil. Biodegradable products just return to nature, disintegrating or disappearing completely. This disintegration could take a week or years – another difference with compostable, where items must break down in a “timely” fashion i.e., one-to-four months. (The FTC states biodegradable items have “reasonably short period of time” to break down, which hasn’t been clarified.)
Finally, compostable items must completely break down and not release any metals or toxins into the compost. Biodegradable products can leave metal residue in their return to nature.
The FTC’s Green Guide states that the claim of a recyclable product is valid as long as “it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream … for reuse or use in manufacturing or assembling another item.”
This definition is much less confusing to the public – recyclable products can be turned into something new. Most plastics, glass, cardboard and metals are recyclable, as long as their turned into the proper facility.
For more information and examples of what’s acceptable regarding these three green terms, check out the FTC’s Green Guides.
Polyethylene (PE) or polyethene (IUPAC name polyethene or poly(methylene)) is the most common plastic. The annual global production is around 80 million tonnes. Its primary use is in packaging (plastic bags, plastic films, geomembranes, containers including bottles, etc.)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE or the obsolete PETP or PET-P) is the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in fibers for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, thermoforming for manufacturing, and in combination with glass fiber for engineering resins.
Poly(lactic acid) or polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA) is a biodegradable and bioactive thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch (in the United States and Canada), tapioca roots, chips or starch (mostly in Asia), or sugarcane (in the rest of the world). In 2010, PLA had the second highest consumption volume of any bioplastic of the world.
Polypropylene (PP), also known as polypropene, is a thermoplastic polymer used in a wide variety of applications including packaging and labeling, textiles (e.g., ropes, thermal underwear and carpets), stationery, plastic parts and reusable containers of various types, laboratory equipment, loudspeakers, automotive components, transvaginal mesh and polymer banknotes. An addition polymer made from the monomer propylene, it is rugged and unusually resistant to many chemical solvents, bases and acids.
Polystyrene (PS) is a synthetic aromatic polymer made from the monomer styrene. Polystyrene can be solid or foamed. General-purpose polystyrene is clear, hard, and rather brittle. It is an inexpensive resin per unit weight. Polystyrene can be naturally transparent, but can be colored with colorants. Uses include protective packaging (such as packing peanuts and CD and DVD cases), containers (such as “clamshells”), lids, bottles, trays, tumblers, and disposable cutlery.