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Feds Warn Plastic Bag Makers over Misleading Biodegradable Claim

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

The FTC has warned 15 'bio-friendly' plastic bag companies over deceptive advertising - but will it have any impact on the dubious disposable plastics industry?  

 "Biodegradable" plastic bags may not break down in the low-oxygen environment of a landfill. Photograph: Forrest Anderson/Getty Images

"Eco-friendly." "All natural." "Biodegradable."

Store aisles are littered with nebulous descriptors of vague environmental claims. Increasingly, however, the US Federal Trade Commission is asking these companies to show the science behind their adjectives - or keep mum.

After launching detailed recommendations for environmental marketing in 2010, the FTC brought a raft of enforcement actions against plastic and paper companies last year, alleging deceptive marketing in the use of the term "biodegradable".

Last month, the FTC sent warning letters to 15 additional marketers, informing them that their claims "may be deceptive". The FTC also requested "competent and reliable scientific evidence proving that their bags will biodegrade as advertised". This time, the term of offense is "oxodegradable", implying the bag will break down in time when exposed to oxygen.

Though the names of the companies have not been released by the FTC, all are said to market traditional plastic products that have been amended with additives -metals, typically - intended to break the bags down in the presence of oxygen. As many bags are dumped in the low-oxygen environment of a landfill, the FTC has said those advertised benefits are dubious.

Worse still, since the bags are mainly composed of polyethylene or styrene, the bags remain hazardous to marine life should they eventually disintegrate in the oceans, said Joseph Greene, department chair and professor in the department of mechanical and mechatronic engineering and sustainable manufacturing at California State University, Chico.   

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