ENSO Biodegradable Plastic Bottle: Is 3.7 Years Too Long?

plastic bottles

Sometimes the problem with society isn’t that we don’t care about the environment, but that we get so caught up in terminology and other tiny incidentals that we fail to see the bigger picture. This is precisely what has happened to in the saga of the biodegradable plastic bottle in California.

In 2009, ENSO introduced the concept of biodegradable PET plastic bottles. These were not the plant derived bottles that had trouble standing up to tradition heat levels, but the much stronger PET bottles that we are used to seeing our water, soda and other drinks packaged in. By 2011, ENSO had contracted with both AquaMantra and Balance Water to use their bottles. Both of these companies were small time players with eco-friendly backgrounds and looked to be moving to a more consumer conscious approach. In steps the Orange County District Attorney and slaps a lawsuit on all three companies stating that they are engaged in false labeling by calling their bottles 100% biodegradable.

The District Attorney’s Office asserted that ENSO and the partnered companies had failed to show that that the product degraded 100% and gave the companies one of two options – provide the requested proof that would meet State standards or remove all 100% biodegradable promotional materials from the marketplace including any reference on the bottles themselves.

All three companies agreed to settle out of court and pay all court fees. ENSO is also responsible for telling each of its potential California clients of the judgment and place a warning on all marketing materials for use in the state.

So, according to the State of California, ENSO bottles do not biodegrade. But is this really true?  The California law states that to be labeled biodegradable the material must completely break down within one year. The ENSO bottle has been estimated to take about 3.7 years to completely biodegrade. So, technically, they do biodegrade – just not fast enough for the State of California, Orange County DA.

The product testing, done by NSF laboratory – a leader in food packaging safety testing, found that after 60 days, the original packaging for the AquaMantra bottle degraded by 4.47%. This was extrapolated out to find a total degradation time of 3.7 years.

What is the lesson that California is trying to get across here? That companies that are trying to do the right thing should go through complete testing and delay the introduction of a potentially game-changing product? Or maybe it’s the pressure from the recycling industry that has forced the DA’s hand. The recycling industry has been vocally opposed to the ENSO technology from the start because introduction of biodegradable enzyme products into their system would compromise the final product.

What seems to have happened, is that the DA has adhered to the letter of the law and ignored the intent. The intent being to prevent marketers from greenwashing their products for better sales. This wasn’t the case here, and the preliminary results have shown that ENSO has a product that will break down in under 4 years (traditional PET bottles would take over 10,000). This is a pure case of the legislative tar pit gobbling up common sense in the name of protecting the public.

What do you think? Should California take a step back and look at the progress that ENSO has made and perhaps reverse its decision?

  • Nick

    The problem is “after 60 days, the original packaging for the AquaMantra bottle degraded by 4.47%. This was extrapolated out to find a total degradation time of 3.7 years.” That is junk science. Just because 5% degrades doesn’t mean the other 95% will at all, let alone at the same rate. The article says the product was introduced in 2009. Where are the results for the first prototype bottles made before launch? Did they break down in 5 years? If they did, why doesn’t ENSO use that in advertising. That’s why I suspect the bottles don’t completely degrade in 5 years as advertized.

  • Ken Sleight

    Nick,
    While you are correct to suspect junk science, this the this actual method that is used by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The exact testing done to confirm the biodegradability of plastics in a landfill situation is found in the short term ASTM D 5511 test that determines if the plastic is biodegradable in an anerobic environment, and the long term ASTM D 5526, that does the same testing over a 5 year period.
    The Enso plastic with the built -in enzyme tested by the ASTM D 5511 showed full biodegradation occurring within 250 days, whereas the same material tested using ASTM D 5526 showed upwards of 5 years for full biodegradation. This shows that the material degradation does slow down after the initial landfill entry period.

    But that’s not the point. The point is, that rather than work with ENSO to create a mutually acceptable terminology for the better performing product, the California DA required it to be fully removed. That meant that this product, which is a far better alternative to traditional PET products, could not be advertised as a better alternative. Thus, with the higher cost to produce it and the higher expense to potential bottlers, it was a no go. With no way for the new bottle to positively impact sales, companies don’t want to try to justify the added expense. In essence, the DA, who is trying to protect consumers, did a huge disservice to environment (and int he long run, the community).

    Ken

  • Russell Higgins RA

    If the only test he manufacturer admits to is for 60 days, then that’s the best result they got. Why on earth would they have not buried a thousand and dug one up a day, washed it, dried it and weighed it to see how much plastic was left intact? Too expensive? Really? Not!
    The intent of the law is bottle goes bye bye.
    A reputable manufacturer would test buried in a landfill, compost pile, tank of seawater and tank of potable water, as well as just lying out on the lawn. This is why complex all encompassing laws have to be made and enforced. Masters of the universe with access to the money necessary to produce product, build things, market, etc. don’t care about anything but making more money.

  • Brad

    I agree with Nick – The problem is “after 60 days, the original packaging for the AquaMantra bottle degraded by 4.47%. This was extrapolated out to find a total degradation time of 3.7 years.” That is junk science. Just because 5% degrades doesn’t mean the other 95% will at all, let alone at the same rate – these companies add 5% magic pixie dust that does degrade quickly – then the plastic just sits there. If you want to claim something – prove it. If you think it’s better for the environment – nothing is stopping you from adding it, you just cant claim it does something it doesn’t!

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that prior to making any unqualified “biodegradable” claims, that suppliers have scientific data to prove:
    1) That the entire product (not just the additive) will biodegrade into elements found in nature;
    2) In a short period time after customary disposal (which is landfilling for most plastics).