By Saabira Chaudhuri
Imagine you're walking along a beach sipping a cool lemonade.
When you finish, there's no trash can in sight, so you leave your
plastic cup and straw on the shore, assured that if washed away
they'll quickly disappear.
That's the image touted by a growing number of companies using
Nodax -- a plant-based plastic -- to make straws, bottles and bags
that they claim can biodegrade in oceans within a few months.
Nodax's owner, Danimer Scientific Inc., counts Nestlé SA and
Bacardi Ltd. among its customers and PepsiCo Inc. as an
Nodax breaks down far more quickly than fossil-fuel plastics,
which can last for hundreds of years. But many claims about Nodax
are exaggerated and misleading, according to several experts on
biodegradable plastics. They say more testing and stricter
regulations are needed, and warn that marketing products as marine
biodegradable could encourage littering. Biodegradable straws,
bottles and bags can persist in the ocean for several years, they
"The claims are what I would call sensationalized," Jason
Locklin, a University of Georgia professor, said of Danimer's Nodax
marketing. Mr. Locklin directs the university's New Materials
Institute and co-authored a study cited by Danimer as validating
Consumers are increasingly concerned about the environmental
impact of single-use plastics, while regulators are threatening and
implementing bans. More companies are promising to make
eco-friendly containers, a shift Danimer says is a big tailwind.
Plastic in the oceans is a particularly emotive issue for some,
dismayed by images circulated by conservation organizations showing
bleeding turtles, dead fish and tangled seabirds.
Companies since the 1970s have tried with little success to
develop plastics that naturally disappear in the environment. While
plastics made from materials like corn can biodegrade in compost
facilities under specific heat and moisture conditions, plastic
that quickly breaks down in nature has proved elusive.
Until now, Danimer says. Its chief executive, Steven Croskrey,
has described Nodax as "the holy grail of plastic," highlighting
that the material has been certified by TUV Austria -- a leading
international certification body whose logo is found on items like
compostable food waste bags -- as able to biodegrade in seawater.
Danimer's share price has more than doubled since it went public
through a deal with a so-called blank-check company in late
Nodax is the brand name of a resin that belongs to a family of
plastics known as PHAs. It is made by feeding canola oil to
bacteria, from which carbon is extracted and turned into plastic.
Unlike conventional plastics, Nodax is consumed by microorganisms
when thrown away, Danimer says.
Mr. Locklin's study -- described in marketing material by
Danimer and its customers as verifying Nodax as "a truly
biodegradable alternative to petrochemical plastics" -- showed that
Nodax in powdered form breaks down quickly, but that the rate is
much more variable when tested as a film, the form used to make
bags, straws and bottles.
Making broad claims about Nodax's biodegradability "is not
accurate," said Mr. Locklin, adding: "I think that's
Danimer says its claims are factual. "The material truly is
biodegradable so we're not greenwashing," said its chief technology
officer, Phil Van Trump. "The only thing that will potentially
change is how long it takes to biodegrade."
Rum giant Bacardi is working with Danimer to develop Nodax
plastic spirits bottles by 2023. Its marketing materials call Nodax
a "plant-based wonder material" and say the upcoming bottles will
"disappear" in 18 months.
Bacardi says the claim is based on internal tests and a separate
certification Danimer has received from TUV on a lab test showing
that a sheet of the raw material used to make the bottle will
disintegrate by 90% in seawater within 12 weeks. Extrapolating from
this, Bacardi and Danimer say a Nodax spirits bottle would break
down within 18 months in the ocean.
Variations in temperature and microorganisms in the ocean make
it very difficult to promise a bottle made from Nodax will
biodegrade in 18 months, according to Ramani Narayan, a professor
at Michigan State University who has been researching biodegradable
plastics for over 30 years.
The marine biodegradability test used to gain certification from
TUV is conducted in a lab using seawater at a temperature of 30
degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). But the average ocean temperature
is 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 Fahrenheit), which means items could
degrade more slowly in real life, Mr. Narayan said. He compares it
to bread, which gets moldy less quickly inside the fridge.
At some ocean temperatures, Nodax straws could take between five
and 10 years to biodegrade, he said. Bags and bottles could take
Mr. Van Trump called that assessment a "worst-case scenario" and
said even Danimer's most conservative testing shows far quicker
biodegradation. Rodolfo Nervi, Bacardi's sustainability head, said
he is confident the upcoming bottle will be 100% biodegradable in
Bottled-water giant Nestlé is also developing a bottle made from
Nodax, which it says will be recyclable as well as biodegradable.
Some recyclers worry the containers could mix with regular plastic
bottles in recycling streams, breaking down and causing
contamination. Gerhard Niederreiter, head of Nestlé's Institute of
Packaging Sciences, says Nestlé will take an active role in
educating consumers and developing collection, sorting and
Several companies are marketing ocean-friendly straws made from
Columbia Packaging Group markets its Biolo line of Nodax straws,
films and bags as "certified biodegradable," displaying logos from
TUV Austria for marine and soil biodegradability on its
TUV said it doesn't certify products like bottles or straws as
ocean biodegradable because it doesn't want to encourage littering,
nor does it allow companies to make such claims about finished
products even when the raw materials have been certified.
Lab tests are done on sheets of plastic, while finished products
come in different shapes and thicknesses or have dyes and labels,
all of which could impact how they biodegrade in the real world,
said Philippe Dewolfs, head of TUV's bioplastics certification
Columbia Packaging says that TUV has certified the material used
to make its products as being marine and soil biodegradable and it
makes that clear to customers.
Straw maker Urthpact LLC on its website says its Nodax straws
will degrade "anywhere on earth." A promotional video says the
items will biodegrade in three to six months in oceans, backyards
and landfills. A company spokeswoman said Urthpact stands by its
Given the lack of widespread composting facilities that accept
packaging waste, many products made from Nodax today are bound to
end up in landfills.
Modern landfills are designed to prevent biodegradation since
organic matter releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when it
breaks down. Even if an item does biodegrade in landfills, experts
say it's hard to predict how long the process would take since
landfills differ widely from one another -- plus that would be an
Nodax doesn't have any certification indicating it biodegrades
in landfills. However, Mr. Croskrey on an investor call in October
said the product would be consumed by bacteria if it ended up in a
landfill. Responding to questions from The Wall Street Journal, Mr.
Van Trump said the claim by the Danimer chief wasn't wholly
accurate, saying Nodax products are unlikely to biodegrade in most
Few laws exist to address claims about biodegradability.
California bans the sale of plastic products that use the terms
"biodegradable" or "degradable," saying such claims can be
misleading. Last year the state passed a separate law barring
products from using the term "marine degradable."
Making claims about soil biodegradability -- as Bacardi and
Columbia do -- is tricky, too, since products need to be fully
buried in soil rather than simply littered to break down entirely,
Mr. Narayan said.
"Everything biodegrades at some point," including fossil-fuel
plastics, he said. "The question is how soon."
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
March 20, 2021 07:14 ET (11:14 GMT)
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