Q: I see the "biodegradable" label on more and more products. Does it ensure they're environmentally safe?
A: If there's one term that companies toss around to get a little eco cred for their products, it's this one. The word "biodegradable" seems to be about as abused as the term "natural." But even goods that don't claim to be "of the earth" often have a biodegradable label somewhere on the package.
So what does it mean? It's hard to say. The insinuation is that whatever you purchased will fully break down and return to nature (as in elements found in nature) after you chuck it. But back in 89, seven U.S. states sued the maker of Hefty bags for saying some of its bags would biodegrade when, in fact, they only partly degraded (into plastic bits) in direct sunlight, but not at all in landfill.
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines for how the term should be used and has taken action against several companies that made misleading or flat-out false biodegradablility claims. No one even pretends to police the term in Canada.
That means you're on your own, sheriff. Read labels carefully. Look for certification symbols and details about biodegradability testing standards, and do your research. If a product sports the word "biodegradable" (like Tampax's applicator), call the company and ask what it means. Has the product passed any particular tests? Under what conditions does the product degrade (in full sun or dark, airless landfill piles)? And just how long does it take to return to Mother Nature's warm embrace? Four hundred years is not a good answer. Not that the makers will tell you much. Tampax just says its applicators will biodegrade "under the right conditions." Just what those are it won't say.
Don't be duped by tricky wording. Many mainstream clothes-washing detergents say they contain "biodegradable ingredients" or "biodegradable surfactants" (surfactants make things sudsy and rinse "clean"). Some even offer up valuable testing codes (like OECD #301d), indicating they're proven to break down quickly in water. But what about the rest of the ingredients? Shall we ignore those?
Keep in mind that just because an ingredient is biodegradable doesn't mean it's good for you or the environment. DDT, for instance, biodegrades - into two compounds that are more toxic than DDT itself.
But there are lots of great companies out there that are happy to come clean and tell you right on the label just how long it takes their product to break down. Nature Clean makes bleaches, soaps, shampoos and toilet bowl cleaners (available at most health stores and even Dominion and ValueMarts), 99 per cent of which biodegrade within 28 days. Quebec-based Druide follows the same standard for its line of personal care products. But even super-biodegradable products like Campsuds should never be used directly in rivers or lakes where they could harm fish. Soap up at least 200 feet away from fresh water and bury your wash and rinse water in a hole 6 inches deep. According to Campsuds maker Sierra Dawn, the soil's bacteria will completely and safely biodegrade the detergent.
Some companies are turning eco-menaces like disposable cups and cutlery into products that can be composted into grade-A soil. We're not encouraging you to buy single-use products, but if you're having a picnic or a big BBQ, Earthware Biodegradables ditches petroleum-based plastic in favour of non-GMO wheat to make its throwaway cutlery. Note: it's designed to be tossed into your backyard compost pile (where it will break down in three to six weeks) or buried in your garden (where it will take four to six months), not trucked to landfills, where it won't get enough air to break down properly. Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor sells 24-packs of spoons, forks, knives or combos for $6.99.
Grassroots also has compostable, GMO-free sugar-cane-and-wild-reed-based disposable plates and cups ($5.99/50 cups, $4.99/25 plates), which can also be recycled into paper.
Bio-Solo makes garbage bags out of a new polymer that biodegrades into CO2, water and minerals (available at most Loblaws, Sobey's, Canadian Tire, Home Hardware and Zellers). They take about 14 days in a good compost setting and up to 15 months in landfill - no time compared to regular bags.
Spots like Merchants of Green Coffee on Matilda, Cherry Bomb on Roncesvalles, Ra Ra Raw on Augusta and Fressen on Queen are handing out drinks in vegetable-derived cups supplied by Greenshift.ca. Both hot and cold versions biodegrade in commercial composts in about 50 days, or eight to 12 months in a typical landfill.
Do keep in mind that although some bio-plastics are said to go in your green bin, the city just picks them out and sends them to Michigan along with all the other plastics in the food scrap mix. (But once there, they should vanish within a couple of months.) Keep them out of blue bins, too - if bio-plastics get recycled into new products, they might ruin them when they start breaking down!
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