The prevalence of claims made about plastic products being degradable and better for the environment has led to widespread consumer confusion. Both the rate and extent of degradation are heavily influenced by the end-of-life conditions to which plastic products are exposed. As a result, California and the federal government have strengthened regulations about environmental marketing claims.
California’s Laws: Strict laws 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, including bags, food service ware, and packaging.
In 2011, legislation was passed that extended restrictions on use of degradability terms to nearly all plastic products. (See Public Resources Code (PRC) Sections 42355-42358.5.) The law requires clear scientific evidence for environmental claims, noting biodegradation is a complex process dependent on physical and chemical structure, environmental conditions, and time.
California’s Attorney General: In 2011, the attorney general filed a first-of-its-kind “greenwashing” lawsuit against three companies that allegedly made false and misleading claims by marketing plastic water bottles as “100 percent biodegradable and recyclable.” Based on a settlement reached in 2012, the companies were required to remove all biodegradability and recyclability claims from their additive-based products, pay settlement penalties and fees, and notify their customers.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC): In 1992, the FTC created its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, known as the "Green Guides,” to provide manufacturers and marketers with specific guidance on acceptable environmental benefit claims for their products. This guidance applies to advertising and marketing practices for a wide range of material types, including degradable plastics. The FTC Act gives the commission the power to bring law enforcement actions against companies making false or misleading marketing claims. Conduct inconsistent with the positions articulated in the guides may result in corrective action by the FTC.
In 2012, the Green Guides were revised to include additional examples and guidance for using such terms as “compostable” and “degradable,” as well as new sections on renewable energy claims and renewable materials claims. The guides apply to any claim about the environmental attributes of a product, package or service in connection with the sale, offering for sale, or marketing of such product, package or service for personal, family or household use, or for commercial, institutional or industrial use. More information, including recent legal actions, may be found on the FTC's Green Guides page.