Of biodegradable, compostable, paper plates and marketing

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What if I told you there was no such thing as a biodegradable product? Would it bring to mind images of products you have seen at the local store that are promoted as biodegradable? Would you think I was swimming out of the mainstream? Well according to the FTC, in many cases, it just may be true if you are being marketed a biodegradable product and the seller doesn’t qualify that claim.

On June 9th, 2009 the FTC announced “Actions against Kmart, Tender and Dyna-E Alleging Deceptive 'Biodegradable' Claims”. The FTC’s release was picked up by many national papers (click here to see the WSJ article) and led to an internet wide chat about what it means. To boil it down and begin our review of what happened we can summarize the FTC action as acting against Kmart for the marketing of disposable paper plates as biodegradable.

From the FTC press release:

“Kmart Corp. called its American Fare brand disposable plates biodegradable, Tender Corp. called its Fresh Bath-brand moist wipes biodegradable, and Dyna-E International called its Lightload brand compressed dry towels biodegradable”

From the WSJ article By Brent Kendall, of Dow Jones Newswires:

“The charges involved the discount retailer's claim that a brand of its paper plates was biodegradable. The FTC said the paper products at issue didn't decompose quickly enough to qualify for the biodegradable label”

To some this may come as a surprise as we are often led since elementary school science to believe that paper and wood products are biodegradable. More recently even some plastic have been marketed as biodegradable. But regretfully regardless of what we taught in the past, most items are not by themselves biodegradable or degradable in their marketed state. Rather it is when exposed to an appropriate environment they can become biodegradable or degradable. This exposure to an environment that creates biodegradation is typically referred to as composting since it requires access to moisture, heat, microbes and other elements. Let me provide you with a story I use to illustrate this to companies when I consult with them.

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