Grading your degradability claims: The latest for green marketers

Washington, DC - Golf tees, food containers, paper plates, shopping bags, additives for plastics, and rebar caps to prevent construction workers from getting impaled on the job. That’s either the strangest shopping list ever or just some of the products at the center of the FTC’s latest law enforcement effort to make sure companies’ environmental claims are truthful and substantiated.

Five of the cases deal with green claims for products made with additives advertised to make plastics completely biodegradable — even in landfills where a lot of trash winds up, but not much biodegrading takes place.  The lawsuits challenge allegedly deceptive representations both by the company that manufactured one of the additives in question and by businesses that sold finished products with the misleading assurance the items were biodegradable.

According to the FTC’s complaint against Ohio-based ECM Biofilms, the company marketed an additive called Master Batch Pellets that other businesses bought to use in their own manufacturing.  ECM advertised that its additive would make plastics “fully biodegrade in 9 months to 5 years.”  Furthermore, ECM claimed that material treated with its additive had been tested and proven as biodegradable using ASTM D5511, a standard familiar to plastics people.  In addition, ECM issued its own “Certificates of Biodegradability” and “Certificates of Assurance” to convince industry clients — and ultimately consumers – that its additive was effective.

But according to the complaint, plastics containing ECM’s additive won’t completely break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal or after disposal in a landfill.  The FTC also challenged the specific “9 months to 5 years” timeframe ECM touted in its promotional materials.  In addition, the FTC says the testing methods relied upon by ECM, including the ASTM D5511, don’t support the company’s marketing claims and don’t simulate the conditions in landfills or at other disposal facilities.  Another allegation in the complaint:  that ECM violated the law by providing other companies with the "means and instrumentalities" to make deceptive green claims about their own products.  The case against ECM will go to trial before an Administrative Law Judge.

The FTC also announced two settlements with companies that made deceptive biodegradability claims for products manufactured with ECM’s additive.  Seattle-based American Plastic Manufacturing made deceptive biodegradability claims for its plastic shopping bags.  CHAMP, located in Marlborough, Massachusetts, sold plastic golf tees online and in retail stores with biodegradability promises the FTC says are misleading.

The agency reached two additional settlements with companies that sold products containing similar additives marketed by different manufacturers.  Clear Choice Housewares of Leominster, Massachusetts – which also does business as Farber Ware EcoFresh — sold reusable plastic food containers it claimed were biodegradable. What was supposed to make them biodegradable?  According to the company, it was a substance called Eco Pure, made by Bio-Tec Environmental.  But the FTC charged that Clear Choice didn’t have proof to support claims that its product “quickly biodegrades in landfills.”

Carnie Cap, Inc., of East Moline, Illinois, made similar degradability representations for its plastic rebar covers, which were manufactured with an additive called Eco-One, marketed by Ecologic.  According to the FTC, Carnie Cap’s “100% biodegradable” claim — advertised on its website and through distributors nationwide — wasn’t backed up with sound science.

There’s more from the FTC on the green front, including a settlement with Michigan-based AJM Packaging Corporation, which makes paper plates, cups, bowls, napkins, etc.  Does that name ring a bell?  It did for the FTC, due to a 1994 settlement with the company for allegedly deceptive environmental claims for its Green Label paper plates.

The new lawsuit centers on AJM’s representations that some of its most popular paper plates, grocery bags, lunch bags, and lawn and leaf bags were biodegradable and compostable.  The company also touted its paper plates as recyclable.  AJM went a step further by saying in a brochure that its products are “SFI and ‘Cedar Grove’ approved, which means our products are ‘Renewable, Recyclable and Compostable.’”

Not so fast, says the FTC.  According to the complaint, AJM didn’t have sound science to back up its claim that the products will biodegrade (in other words, completely break down and decompose into elements found in nature) within a year when tossed in a landfill.  The lawsuit also says the company didn’t have appropriate proof for its compostability promises.  What about AJM’s recyclability claims for paper plates?  Most recycling facilities won’t take paper plates, rendering that claim deceptive, too.

AJM's settlement includes a $450,000 civil penalty.

For compliance resources, visit the Business Center's Environmental Marketing page.

Additional information