Does “Bio-Based” Mean Buyer Beware?
March 26, 2013
Store shelves are currently lined with products claiming to be compostable. Makes sense. With fossil fuels getting increasingly expensive and environmental awareness growing, manufacturers are turning to bio-based materials—made from plants not petroleum—to stabilize costs and meet sustainability goals. These materials also offer a marketing edge.
When shoppers see “bio-based” on a label (frequently accompanied by the less-than-subtle implications of an eco-friendly-looking logo) it makes them think that this new or different material is not only supplying concrete climate benefits, but also it’s safer for their families.
According to Green-Biz.com, the answer is no. In many cases, bio-based products are neither new nor improved. They’re the same chemicals and plastics they were before. The change is how they’re sourced (i.e. from a renewable raw material). Unfortunately this doesn’t change their behavior. In the body, benzene is benzene. Our cells don’t care whether something is made from corn or petroleum; the molecules remain carcinogenic. For its part, bio-based polyethylene persists in the environment for the same eternity as polyethylene made from petrochemicals. And so on.
There are exceptions. Polylactic acid (PLA), for example, the brand new compostable plastic made from corn, is a meaningful improvement. It now shows up in disposable tableware and other products and differs from existing plastics in significant ways. Other products, like biodegradable vegetable-based cleaning surfactants, do actually behave better in the environment and in our bodies.
Alternatives like these are worth using. But developing them takes time and money. So most companies prefer to use different raw materials for existing end products rather than re-engineer those end products from scratch.
For now, many bio-based products are likely to be the same old toxic wolves in green clothing. Buyers should beware. Check labels and ingredients carefully when shopping. If you find any of the usual unsustainable suspects—bio-based or not—choose something else instead. If something is unclear, get in touch with manufacturers and ask what they mean by “bio-based” or “compostable.” Does their claim represent something legitimately new or just a re-jiggered supply chain? Different ingredients won’t matter unless the things they make are different, too. Meanwhile, our kids shouldn’t be the guinea pigs.