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Universal certification remains elusive over 'compostable' label

Source: Waste & Recycling

As more cities adopt citywide composting programs to divert food waste from landfills, the market for compostable products continues to expand.

But with so many companies in the market making unverified claims about their products, the meaning of the term “compostable” has become muddled for consumers.

“There’s a lot of confusion with what’s compostable and what’s not,” said Doug Hill, general manager of EcoSafe Zero Waste, a compostable product manufacturer.

In the absence of a federally mandated certification process for compostable products, manufacturers can label their products as “compostable” or “biodegradable” without any scientific verification that the product will break down.

Agencies like the Federal Trade Commission attempt to regulate deceptive “greenwash” marketing techniques, but it’s not always easy to prove a product’s label is misleading.

That’s because the FTC doesn’t pre-screen products labeled as compostable to verify they are actually certified, said Michael Davis, an attorney with the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. However, they can pursue companies that make compostable claims without scientific evidence to prove the product can break down completely in a timely manner.

Still, it’s very difficult to police deceptive labeling without an across the board mandatory standard, said Dr. Ramani Narayan, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Michigan State University.

“With all these issues of people making false or misleading claims, composters may take a position that, ‘Well, this is too much work, and I can’t tell the difference between the regular compostable product or a non-compostable product,’ ” he said.

As a result, many commercial compost facilities will accept only compostable products verified through certifiers like the Biodegradable Products Institute, or ASTM International.

Officials in California have gone as far as passing a law prohibiting products from bearing compostable labels without an ASTM certification.

“A lot of composters don’t have the time and resources to trust and check each independent item that gets sent to their facility,” said David Brooks, certification manager for the Biodegradable Products Institute. “If a manufacturer does not have that certification, then there will always be a question, ‘Why don’t you have it?’ And it leaves a doubt in the mind of the composter.”

ASTM International has two standards related to compostable products that ensure their timely biodegradability in a commercial compost facility.

“It’s a pretty strict pass/fail test,” Brooks said.

Since starting its own certification program in 2000, BPI has verified more than 2,400 compostable products, he said.

There is no easily accessible data on either the ratio of uncertified to certified compostable products available or the actual size of the compostable product market. But because non-compostables can contaminate commercial compost and cause a need for costly additional screening, commercial facilities often show a preference toward certified products.

“[Manufacturers] can claim anything they want, but the market is conditioned to check and ask for proof,” Brooks said. “If you run a compost facility and you want to sell good quality humus, if that contains little bits of plastic film and plastic junk, people won’t buy it and it screws up the economics of your entire operation.”

Even if a commercial composter accepts only certified compostable products, however, it can’t always keep residents from putting falsely-labeled products in their food waste bins.

That risk is enough to deter some commercial compost facilities from accepting compostable products at all, Narayan said. Still, many facilities do accept compostable products and do it successfully; and a lot of that comes down to consumer education, he said.

Cedar Grove, a commercial compost company in Washington state, is working with local manufacturers to color-mark all the compostable products Cedar Grove accepts, so residents can more easily determine what is allowed in their food waste bin. Cedar Grove also developed its own compost certification system.

“We were finding that compostable plastics were reacting differently in our system,” said Susan Thoman, director of public affairs and communications for Cedar Grove. “So that’s why we started a whole approval process for our customers.”

Despite the absence of a mandatory certification program, the certification systems that are in place have really brought the compostable product industry a long way, Narayan said.

“Standards and certifications are a critical complement for the successful acceptance of these products, and that is what was lacking before,” he said. “It’s the misleading false claim products that are confusing the industry.”