Last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced enforcement actions against six companies for misleading and unsubstantiated environmental marketing claims. Five of the enforcement actions concern biodegradability claims for plastics, while the sixth relates to a company’s alleged violation of a consent order prohibiting making green claims for its paper plates and bags. These actions follow FTC’s July settlements with three mattress manufacturers regarding unsupported “VOC-free” claims. Together, these cases demonstrate that the FTC highly prioritizes ensuring compliance with its revised Green Guides, the Commission’s guidelines for how companies should properly make environmental claims, and sheds some light on how FTC interprets some of the Green Guides’ provisions.
This marks the first time the FTC has addressed claims for biodegradable plastic. In the plastics matters, FTC has filed complaints and proposed consent orders against four companies that make various plastic products – ranging from golf tees to shopping bags – and a fifth, ECM Biofilms, which sells plastic additives to product manufacturers, including to two of the other companies targeted by the FTC. In addition to various charges of misrepresentation related to the biodegradability claims, ECM Biofilms is also charged with providing customers and distributors with the means to deceive consumers by issuing its own “Certificates of Biodegradability.” Under the proposed consent orders, the companies face no fines but are barred from making biodegradability claims that are unsupported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.
Notably, the consent orders state that ASTM D5511, a test standard commonly used in the industry, cannot be used to substantiate unqualified biodegradability claims or claims beyond the parameters of the test. FTC appears to believe that ASTM D5511 does not simulate the conditions in landfills or other disposal facilities. The consent orders, like the Green Guides, require that unqualified biodegradability claims must be supported by evidence that the product will completely decompose into elements found in nature within one year after customary disposal. Qualified biodegradability claims must include certain appropriate caveats, such as the time period required for a product to completely decompose in a landfill or other disposal environment near where potential consumers live. The consent agreement packages are subject to public comment through November 29, 2013. According to Plastics News, all of the companies have agreed to the settlements except ECM Biofilms, which maintains that tests show that plastics made with its additives will biodegrade in environments mimicking landfills. FTC has scheduled a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge for ECM Biofilms in June.
In the sixth matter, FTC is seeking a $450,000 civil penalty against AJM Packaging Corporation, a manufacturer of paper products including plates, bags and napkins. The FTC’s complaint charges that AJM violated a 1994 consent order by failing to properly substantiate claims that its products were biodegradable, compostable, and/or recyclable. The settlement with AJM vacates the prior consent order and enters a new one reflecting the updates to the Green Guides and requiring AJM to disclose certain information needed to qualify certain green claims.