Why some claims of product compostability are misleading or even untrue: Internet Scambusters #1,070
Lots of Americans have joined the eco-friendly path to home composting - but then they're disappointed when their efforts don't work.
That's because some packaging and other products aren't really compostable at home, but the makers don't want you to know.
In this week's issue, we explain why some compostability claims are misleading at best or sometimes even downright lies.
Let's get started…
Don't Get Hoodwinked By These "Compostable" Claims
When you buy something that's labeled "compostable" or "biodegradable," you likely think you're playing your part in today's eco-conscious world. But sometimes the claims are untrue.
For most of us, "compostable" means the item will rot down to harmless organic material - the stuff you can use as compost on your veggie patch.
But it turns out that can be a far cry from the truth. Product manufacturers sometimes use the term freely, without telling you what they mean, in hopes of misleading eco-minded shoppers to buy.
When these terms are used to make something seem more environmentally friendly than it really is, it's a scam. Not only that, but sometimes, product makers use the terms to jack up their prices, knowing that some consumers are prepared to pay more for "green" products.
The Plastic Problem
Sure, you can compost a lot of fruit and vegetable waste from your kitchen, though even that can fail to break down if it's not done properly. But what about plastic? Or bioplastic as "greenies" like to call it. Often, it's not compostable at all, at least in your backyard.
One of the biggest issues is that many labeled compostable plastics, chiefly packaging material made from vegetable matter, can only be recycled in large industrial incinerators, not in your home or even your local garbage dump. But the makers don't always tell you that. Nor do they tell you how long it'll take to decompose.
Pretending that a product can easily be recycled is called greenwashing, which we reported on in issue #980, Are You Paying for Phony "Greenwashed" Products?
Noted environmentalist and author Eve Schaub, who published her book Year of No Garbage this past April, says: "Greenwashing is a very real thing. Just because something presents itself as an earth-friendly alternative, doesn't mean it actually is one. Sometimes I wonder if we aren't all just so busy feeling good about trying to be better to the planet, we don't stop to realize we might actually be being worse to the planet instead?"
She argues that some compostability claims are actually fraudulent because of the big difference between home and industrial composting.
A report from an international nonprofit environmental group published last year found that 60% of products claiming to be home compostable weren't. Furthermore, only 10% of supposedly industrial compostable materials could actually be processed simply because there aren't enough facilities to handle it.
The picture becomes more confusing because many makers' claims are not backed by any kind of certification. A UK study concluded home composting "is not at present a viable, effective, or environmentally beneficial waste processing method for compostable or biodegradable plastics."
Even worse, the industrial process of biodegrading breaks plastics into ever small particles which, unless handled correctly, find their way into the earth and our oceans - effectively doing more harm than good.
What Can You Do?
First, it's important to be aware of the current limitations of plastics recycling. Second, it's wise to adopt a healthy touch of skepticism about packaging claims.
For example, Schaub investigated this wording on a to-go coffee cup: "Yay! I'm compostable so don't trash me already." But the maker's website (but not the cup) made clear it could only be processed in "actively managed municipal or industrial facilities."
So, if the wording on your "compostable" product doesn't explain what it means or how long it'll take to decompose, it's possibly just greenwashing, with no real benefit.
If you buy these types of products regularly, it's worth checking manufacturers' websites or even approaching them to find out what they mean. You can also check websites and/or labeling for certification from the likes of the Biodegradable Products Institute, the Compost Manufacturing Alliance, or the US Composting Council's Seal of Testing Assurance (STA).
(It's worth noting that "compostable" and "biodegradable" have different meanings, but are sometimes used interchangeably by some manufacturers.)
Another useful check is with your state's rules on labeling. For instance, some US states have actually banned the term "biodegradable" on packaging. That's how serious the greenwashing issue has become.
We're not saying that "composting" is not a dirty word. It is a scientifically proven way to turn organic waste into nutrient-rich material to add to your soil. The problem lies with the firms that use it fraudulently or at least in a misleading way.
Final words from author Schaub: "(I)t shouldn't require a host of Google searches to get to the heart of whether a product is what it claims to be, but until we get better regulation and public awareness around such issues, the onus will still be on the consumer to ferret this stuff out on their own."
This Week's Alerts
Business health check: The Center for Cyber Safety & Education has launched a Health Check program that links up volunteer security experts with small firms and non-profits that don't have the resources to monitor the safety of their own systems and networks. The program is being piloted right now but you can apply for future involvement (or to be a volunteer).
Google Voice scams: Six out of every 10 identity theft victims were tricked as a result of Google Voice scams, according to a new report from the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC). Google Voice is a telephone service that provides a US phone number to customers in many parts of the world. Learn more from the ITRC's annual report on identity theft (PDF), published last month.
Targeting the bereaved: Scammers have been combing through obituary listings on the websites of funeral homes, then phoning bereaved relatives using the name of a staff member at the home. They demand payment before the funeral can proceed. If you get a call like this, hang up and call the funeral home to check.
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!