Is it Time to Banish the Word ‘Biodegradable’?

If you see the word “biodegradable” on a product or packaging, are you more likely to buy it?

In today’s “green” obsessed economy, consumers love to see feel-good words like “biodegradable” or “recyclable” on the things they buy. Unfortunately, few consumers actually realize what these words mean, confusion that marketers exploit to grab sales from the eco-concious (See: 95% of Eco Products Commit Greenwashing Sins).

“It’s no secret that consumers want products that are environmentally friendly, and that companies are trying to meet that need,” Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a recent statement regarding deceptive biodegradable plastics claims. “But companies that don’t have evidence to support the environmental claims they make about their products erode consumer confidence and undermine those companies that are playing by the rules.”

But some packaging experts say it’s time to banish the word biodegradable from our sustainability vocabulary, suggesting that another word would more accurately communicate the truth about a material’s true eco-friendliness.

“The problem with the B word? Its connotation that it’s always a good thing and never a bad thing,” writes Adam Gendell, project manager at GreenBlue’s Sustainable Packaging Coalition, in a column for Packaging Digest. He goes on to point out that while we all have a favorable image of biodegradability, its benefit has a lot to do with where the item actually ends up.

“No matter what we do, a lot of packaging will end up in a landfill where it’s unlikely that biodegradability will do it any good,” Gendell continues. “In the oxygen-deprived enclosure of a landfill, things biodegrade anaerobically, which essentially is a big word meaning they generate a lot of methane as they decompose. Methane, you may have heard, is an extra-potent greenhouse gas. Landfills are the third biggest source of manmade methane emissions to the atmosphere. If trash didn’t have that pesky quality of biodegradability, landfills would be a bit more benign.”

Crazy, right? Our over-use of the word biodegradable could actually be harming the environment! But Gendell isn’t all doom and gloom. He suggests a more accurate alternative, for the packaging industry and beyond: compostability.

“The concept of compostability is constantly becoming better defined and it’s this C word, not the B word, that tells us if a package has the potential for a beneficial end-of-life scenario involving its decomposition. So yes, a package can be biodegradable and not compostable,” Gendell explains.

Compostability — meaning the ability to break down and returning to a soil-like state — is closer to what many of us visualize when we see the word biodegradable, which is why Gendell things it should replace the B word.

Do you agree that the term biodegradable does more harm than good? How often do you see or seek out products made for compostability? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Image: Richard Masoner

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111 comments

Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brownabout a year ago

thanks for sharing :)

Manuela C.
Manuela C.2 years ago

Yes, misleading!

John chapman
John chapman2 years ago

What we need is more biodegradable plastics, for when it doesn't get recycled.

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa2 years ago

Thank you for posting

Diane C.
Past Member 2 years ago

Debbie S.--With all due respect I don't think it was that people cared more then so much as that stuff like plastic, styrofoam, clear clingwraps weren't available at the time (or not readily available). With the passage of time, the message may sink in and we'll be back to paper bags and butcher paper.

Diane C.
Past Member 2 years ago

Grace A.--I didn't even know these things existed! I hope they catch on in a big way. (Do they have a name other than "contraptions"?)

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Interesting. Thank you.

Karen R.
Karen Ryan2 years ago

Buying biodegradable items is only part of the process. The items must then be allowed to biodegrade. Most of us live in places where it is difficult to compost. Apartments, HOAs, condos, etc have rules. Lots of rules.

Rehana VN
Rehana VN2 years ago

"Psychological nonsense". World is more polluted than ever before. Interesting article.Thanks

Tanya Selth
Tanya Selth2 years ago

thanks, I was being fooled by this