Recently, the Recycling On the Go team came across an item at an event that clearly belongs in the “Whaaat?? File.” The Styrofoam cup shown in this picture has a green leaf and earth design around it with the statement,“Shown to biodegrade 84.3% after 1154 days” with a footnote to this information right on the cup: “Under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill using the ASTM D5511-11 test. Note that stated rate and extent of degradation do not mean that the product will continue to decompose.” Well, that’s nice and it looks “green”…..
Hmmmm. First of all, we have never heard of an ASTM D5511-11 test and we all know that Styrofoam is made from petroleum and is considered a “hazardous material,” as explained in the Polystyrene Foam Report on Earth Resource website, to name one source.
Next, landfill conditions in reality, as described by Recycling on the Go Program Director, Bob Henkel, “(Landfills) are not designed for biological activity, nor decomposition. They create anaerobic conditions: places devoid of oxygen. Landfills are also required to mitigate the effects of water which can mix with toxins and create a harmful leachate, so having a wetter landfill is not ideal.” Well, that’s interesting Bob, but that’s not what’s written in green on the cup.
So what is this ASTM D5511-11 test that has suddenly popped up out of nowhere?
Upon further investigation, we found a description on ANSO Plastics website. Basically, it’s a short term test conducted in a lab environment to provide indication of biodegradability of plastic material. However, according to the ANSO Plastics website, the test “does not provide realistic waste conditions and real life scenarios.” What? Seriously?
And what exactly is biodegradable?
If something is biodegradable, is that a good thing? Well, in this case, determine for yourself upon reading the actual definition from Wikipedia: “Biodegradation is the disintegration of materials by bacteria, fungi, or other biological means. Although often conflated, biodegradable is distinct in meaning from compostable. While biodegradable simply means to be consumed by microorganisms, “compostable” makes the specific demand that the object break down under composting conditions. Biodegradable matter is generally organic material that serves as a nutrient for microorganisms.”
So, if biodegradable matter is generally organic material, as stated above, but the cup in question is clearly Styrofoam, what is going on? Especially since according to Cleveland State University’s Sustainability webpage, Styrofoam actually takes 1+ million years to decompose in real-life landfill conditions. That’s not even close to 1154 days, as claimed in the footnote printed in green on the cup.
If we didn’t know better, we might go out on a limb and say that this could be a classic case of “green washing,” in which a product’s actual sustainability is clearly perception and not fact. What do you think?
If you have other products or items that belong in the “Whaaat? File,” pass them along for further investigation by the St. Louis Earth Day sleuth team.