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. Report-card advocates cite a recent study that finds 71 percent of consumers read nutritional labels as evidence that the public is ready for detailed environmental information.
But Joel Makower, editor of The Green Consumer Letter in Washington, is skeptical. "People understand nutritional labels to an extent because they know they have to cut back on say cholesterol or sodium," he says. "But I am not sure they will be able to evaluate grams of pollutants."
"Consumers don't want to be told that this is `good for the environment,' because that is kind of meaningless jargon," says Linda Brown, vice president of SCS, based in Oakland, Calif.
The SCS report card will list energy used, waste produced, and materials expended during the product's life. Alongside this tiny bar chart will be a benchmark bar chart of the industry average. The consumer can then draw his own conclusions.
Jim Dougherty, vice president of Green Seal, the other prominent company that certifies manufacturers' environmental claims, says "consumers aren't sophisticated enough or aren't patient enough to go through [an inventory] kind of analysis at the point of purchase."
Green Seal, a nonprofit company in Washington, puts stamps of approval on products that meet standards set through consultation with business, government, academia, and public-interest groups.
"What [consumers] need is independent, scientifically solid reviewers who look at a category and say, `If you find our seal on a product, you can rest assured it's one of the best,' " Mr. Dougherty says.
Inventories and seals, however, are expensive and time-consuming. An SCS inventory costs a company from $17,000 to $30,000, a Green Seal around $10,000, and both need regular checkups. EPA officials are also concerned that with different seals and inventories competing for consumer attention, confusion will ensue.
The first two companies to undergo the full inventory process are Statler Tissue - winner of an EPA award for pollution prevention - and Webster Industries, the first to produce 100 percent recycled trash bags. A leader in the environmental field, Statler sees the report card as a good marketing tool, an official of the Boston-based company says.
And now supermarket chains such as Stop 'n Shop and A&P are starting to run with the idea, encouraging manufacturers to have their products independently certified, the official says. "There are enough manufacturers willing to come out with this [report card] that it could potentially become a common denominator for comparisons among consumers and manufacturers," he ventures.