George Makrauer doesn't doubt he's got a fight on his hands.
As president of Amko Plastics Inc., a Springdale, Ohio, plastic bag maker, and chairman of the Degradable Plastics Council, an industry trade group, Makrauer lately has been the industry point man in the growing controversy over the environmental soundness of degradable plastic.
Such plastics are polymer materials that deteriorate faster than regular plastics by a variety of techniques. In 1987, Amko introduced to the U.S. plastic bag market a biodegradable plastic that uses a corn starch additive to break down the plastic polymers.
But government and environmental officials have increasingly questioned whether degradable plastics manufacturers, in an attempt to cater to consumers' growing environmental awareness, are exaggerating their environmental claims.
- The Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general in eight states are investigating whether some degradable plastic makers are misleading consumers with their advertising. In response to such criticism, Mobil Corp., which makes Hefty trash bags, last week said it would continue to use "an environmentally safe additive" to speed the decomposition of the bags in sunlight but wouldn't be promoting degradability in its advertising.
- Greenpeace, the environmental group, in a report last month entitled "Breaking Down the Degradable Plastics Scam," charged: "There is no good evidence that `degradable' plastics actually accomplish their ostensible purpose of eliminating the environmental hazards associated with ordinary plastics.
But Makrauer, while agreeing there's a need for better standards and definitions in the industry, charges the Greenpeace report is "totally inaccurate."
"There's no question that (degradable plastic bags) are environmentally sound," Makrauer said.
The Degradable Plastics Council was established last year by 18 resin companies, fabricators and researchers, he said.
The FTC inquiry, Makrauer said, "reflects the need to explore new technologies and help with the establishment of standards and definitions."
Right now, degradables constitute only a small portion of the plastic packaging market.
The Fredonia Group, a Cleveland-based business database, said in 1987 degradable plastics accounted for only 44 million pounds of the 55 billion pounds of plastics sold in the United States. But degradables are expected to grow at a 75-percent annual rate, reaching 850 million pounds in 1992.
At Amko, which has annual sales of more than $25 million, degradable bags represent less than 7 percent of its sales volume.
"The point is if people want plastic to be very readily degradable, industry can do it. But there needs to be a consensus. Instead we're getting yelling from the paper industry and environmentalists," Makrauer said.
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(Mike Boyer writes for The Cincinnati Enquirer.)