Eco-Labeling Takes Scientific Leap Forward but Will Consumers Digest So Much Detail on Waste and Pollution? RATING GREEN PRODUCTS

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WHEN a parcel arrives in the mail padded with starch peanuts, the biodegradable cousin of polysterene pellets, all you need do is "dump {the packaging} down your toilet, let it dissolve, and forget about it," as Stanley Rhodes, president of Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), puts it.

But you may have unwittingly started a destructive cycle. Starch encourages algae, which rob the water system of oxygen and eventually suffocate plant and fish life. Recycling the polystyrene pellets is actually the path of least environmental damage, Dr. Rhodes says.

Conventional "green" wisdom falls short. And this case is no exception. In trying to make a product less detrimental to the environment on one level, says Rhodes, whose company is one of the country's largest independent certifiers of environmental claims, manufacturers may create secondary but greater problems.

The solution to consumer confusion over misleading "green" claims is in sight, however, Rhodes says. This autumn SCS's "environmental report card," a cradle-to-grave inventory of a product's burden on the environment, will appear on products that companies want independently certified.

"It's a revolutionary disclosure step," Rhodes says. Like the nutritional label that came about after a long period of false claims by the food industry, the report card will tell consumers that not all recycled products are good for the environment, he says.

Some critics of the report-card concept wonder whether consumers will be able to cope with the new level of detail, which goes far beyond current labels - some verified independently - touting products as "recycled" or "biodegradable."

Another concern is whether these studies are really definitive.

Factors going into the production, use, and disposal of a product are so complex, says Douglas Blanke, a member of a 10-state Attorney General task force on environmental advertising, that "it is simply beyond science's ability today to reduce all that to an overall single score or a single conclusion."

Green Report II, put out by the Attorneys General in May 1991, concludes that companies should do life-cycle assessments of products for their own internal use and to improve product design, but "using such assessments now to make comparisons between products" is "misleading."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has produced draft guidelines for life-cycle assessment methodology, but is silent on its application. In contrast, in Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan governments are taking the initiative in defining environmental standards for manufacturers.

A second area of contention, is how much consumers want to know. …