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California Suing Bottlers Over Biodegradability Claims

The State is Enforcing a 2008 Law Designed to Stop Greenwashing in Bioplastic Containers

In Breaking Down Bioplastics  (Summer 2011 issue), we took a close look at the pros and cons of a range of packaging materials called bioplastics. This week in California, Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit aimed at addressing one of the cons: false advertising.

The suit says that "claim of recyclability on these bottles is deceptive and
misleading to consumers."

A 2008 California law makes it illegal to print the word "biodegradable," "degradable," or "decompostable" on a plastic food or beverage container. Any container will biodegrade eventually, but it could take thousands of years. If a packager has designed a material to break down in a composting facility, it must submit to testing in order to validate that it will decompose within the time and environmental confines of industrial composting processing. If it passes muster, the material can be labeled compostable.

As we noted in our story, if materials placed into composting or recycling systems prove to be non-compostable or non-recyclable, respectively, they can really muck things up. The law is designed to prevent that from happening by restricting the marketing claims packagers and manufacturers can make, and this week's action is the first time the law is being enforced.

Three companies are in the suit's crosshairs. ENSO Plastics, an Arizona- based plastic manufacturer, and Aquamantra, based in California, and New Jersey's Balance Water.  ENSO makes a plastic is claims to be both biodegradable and recyclable, while Aquamantra and Balance Water both use ENSO bottles to package their products, which are sold in California.

ENSO has drawn the ire of the recycling community because it uses a microbial additive that it says will aid the plastic's decomposition in a landfill. But it claims that the plastic is recyclable, too. Once in a recycling stream, however, that additive can compromise the recycling system because the ENSO material melts at different temperatures than the conventional PET plastic that makes up most of the stream.

Plus, recycled PET that contains traces of the ENSO product could have a cloudy appearance, which makes it unmarketable.

The suit says that "claim of recyclability on these bottles is deceptive and misleading to consumers."

It also states: "ENSO knowingly participates, directly or indirectly, in arranging for the sale of plastic bottles in or into California that are labeled, or intended for labeling as, 'biodegradable,' in violation of California law."

The suit seeks to have the bottles removed from California stores.

Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mary Catherine O’Connor writes about the environment, adventure sports, and technology.

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