Greenwashing Alert: Beware of Biodegradable Claims

Greenwashing Alert: Beware of Biodegradable Claims
3 minute read

This is a public service announcement!

Anytime you see a brand or business saying that their product or packaging is biodegradable, and they don’t give any context around that claim, you better run for the hills. Why? Because you’re being greenwashed.

For decades, companies have been manipulating the general public’s knowledge to sell more products. This is greenwashing at its best. And the use of the term “biodegradable” is one of the worst offenders.

The real definition of biodegradable

When you hear the word “biodegradable”, what comes to mind?

You probably think of something that can naturally break down. For instance, if you toss an apple core into your backyard and it starts to break down in a few days or weeks, you’d probably consider that biodegradable. And that’s because it is.

But would you also consider something that takes 5000 years to break down biodegradable?

Probably not. But that too is considered biodegradable, at least from a legal perspective. Let me say that again: a company can legally label their product biodegradable even if it takes 500 years or even 5000 years to break down.

WTF? How is that possible?

There are no laws or regulations around the term “biodegradable”. This means that companies can use the term as they please.

A comparison of what consumers think is biodegradable (like food that naturally breaks down over time) vs what can legally be labelled as biodegradable (like microplastics found in sand)

But that’s not exactly what consumers picture when they see the word biodegradable on a product.

Pretty messed up, right?

Here’s where these sneaky marketing tactics (aka greenwashing!) come into play. I’ve seen plastic wrappers, plastic bags, and toothbrushes labeled as biodegradable even though they’re made of plastic and ain’t gonna break down in any natural setting any time soon. A plastic biodegradable bag isn’t exactly what consumers have in mind! Am I right?

Greenwashing is (unfortunately) a very effective marketing strategy

How to know if something is actually biodegradable

The only time you can trust if a company says that their product or packaging is biodegradable is if they give specific circumstances about how it will biodegrade. For example: “This bag is biodegradable and made from plant byproducts. It will break down within 180 days of being buried in soil.”

Image of a label that shows the compostable specifics of packaging
Example of compostable packaging that’s very specific and has third party verifications to support its claims

Now even with this statement, there’s nothing legally behind what they are saying, but it shows they’ve done their research and due diligence. After all, you could buy the item, see if it breaks down in 180 days, and call them out on it. And if it doesn’t break down, then you’d have a case!

California coming in for the win

Luckily, states like California are trying to crack down on misleading labeling when it comes to biodegradable and compostable products. Here’s a little snippet of what they’re doing…

“Strict laws [now] regulate the marketing and labeling of degradable plastic products sold in California, including those claimed to be ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable.’ Environmental marketing claims, whether explicit or implied, must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence and meet specified standards to prevent misleading consumers about the environmental impact of degradable plastic products.” (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery)

Let’s hope other states and countries follow California’s lead becaue we need this kind of regulation across the board.

Got more FAQs?

Now, you probably still have a ton of unanswered questions about products that are labeled as biodegradable vs compostable as there’s a lot of confusion around the two. With that in mind, here’s the full scoop on compostable products and what these terms actually mean.

Conclusion: Be a conscious consumer

There’s a lot of misleading information out there when it comes to how companies label their products and packaging. And it might be hard to decipher what is greenwashing and what isn’t.

Be sure to look out for terms like biodegradable packaging, biodegradable products, and biodegradable bags. Those tend to be the biggest culprits. And make sure that companies give you evidence to support any claims they’re making.

As long as you keep your eyes wide open, you’ll be able to make conscious and informed decisions about the products you buy. And if not, you can always drop me a line and I can help you out 🙋🏻‍♀️.

Not so fun fact:
“Everything is biodegradable [over time]”


Random insights from my wacky brain: While I was writing this blog post, I had (what I think is) a brilliant idea! It would be so fun to host a themed game of Jeopardy, focused on all things sustainable. For example:

Question: [Blank] is what happens companies manipulate the general public’s knowledge around sustainability to sell more products.

Answer: “What is greenwashing!”

Wouldn’t that be fun!?!?!?

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