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Are Biodegradable Bags Really Biodegradable?

plastic bagOver the past few years, I've wound up with an occasional green "biodegradable" plastic bag, usually when taking home leftovers from a restaurant.    But are they actually biodegradable?  

As it turns out, no.  Alas, it's more greenwashing.  

Last month, the FTC sent warning letters to 15 additional marketers, informing them that their claims might be deceptive.   The FTC requested “competent and reliable scientific evidence proving that their bags will biodegrade as advertised."  The companies that manufacture these bags call them "oxo-degradable," meaning they supposedly break down after being exposed to oxygen for a while.  But the FTC isn't buying it and neither is Joseph Greene, the department chair and professor in the department of mechanical and mechatronic engineering and sustainable manufacturing at California State University, Chico.

 “I’ve been telling these companies – and they don’t like this very much – but the ‘oxo-degradable’ label should be changed to ‘oxo-fragmentable’,” said Joseph Greene, author of the newly published book, “Sustainable Plastics: Environmental Assessments of Bio-based, Biodegradable, and Recycled Plastics." 

He goes on to explain:  "The plastic is not degrading, it’s fragmenting.”  This means that these plastic bags break down into tiny little plastic bits.   In fact, the Society of Plastic Industry even found them unfit for their claims of biodegradability!  The problem with these little plastic bits is that they're toxic to marine and wildlife.  The bags are mainly made of polyethylene or styrene.

Greene believes there needs to be legislation in place to stop these misleading terms.  “We need universal guidelines, consistent guidelines from state to state, otherwise these companies will go to the state of least resistance … or to Mexico, which is trouble for everybody.”

So, sadly, these bags are yet another example of greenwashing.  Hopefully one day there will be a truly eco-friendly alternative to single-use bags, but for now just continue to avoid them - even if they make claims of biodegradability.