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Not every building project starts with an ax-wielding guy in a flannel shirt yelling “tim-berrrr!”  Consumers have another choice these days:  plastic lumber, which is often used in decking, fences, outdoor furniture, etc.  Wisconsin-based N.E.W. Plastics Corporation (you may know them as Renew Plastics) manufactures two lines of plastic lumber – Evolve and Trimax – and touts their environmental benefits.  But according to a settlement announced by the FTC, the company’s green claims didn’t stack up.

N.E.W. markets Evolve and Trimax through independent distributors and retailers across the country.  One focus of the company’s marketing campaign for Evolve was to position the product as an environmentally conscious choice:

"When you build with EVOLVE recycled plastic lumber, you demonstrate your commitment to the environment and sustainable living.  EVOLVE recycled plastic lumber products are 100% plastic and generally contain over 90% high density polyethylene (ReHDPE) material."

The company’s website also touted Evolve as “at least 90% ReHDPE, utilizing both post-consumer and post-industrial materials” and “100% recyclable.”  Ads for Trimax described it as “derived from post-consumer bottle waste such as milk and detergent bottles” and “recyclable.”

But according to the FTC, during certain periods, Evolve contained at most 58% recycled plastic, while Trimax averaged less than 12% post-consumer recycled content – nothing close to the advertised claims.  Furthermore, people would have gotten a big surprise if they hauled Evolve and Trimax to the nearby recycling center.  Despite express representations that the products were recyclable, local recycling centers wouldn’t accept Evolve and Trimax.  Why not?  Because they contain other components that aren’t recyclable.  In addition, most facilities accept only small household items, not larger, heavy building materials like plastic lumber.  What about sending it back to N.E.W.’s factory for recycling?  Good luck with that.  The shipping cost made that an unrealistic option.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that N.E.W.’s “90% recycled plastic” claim for Evolve was false and unsubstantiated, as was the representation that Trimax was made of all or virtually all post-consumer recycled content like milk jugs or detergent bottles.  The proposed order bars those deceptive claims, but offers even broader protection for consumers in the future by prohibiting misrepresentations about the environmental benefit of any other product or packaging.  Thanks to the proposed order, N.E.W. sent a letter to distributors and retailers telling them to pull all promotional materials that have the deceptive recycled content or recyclability claims.

The settlement offers insights for advertisers making environmental representations.  First, the FTC’s Green Guides remain your best resource for how to avoid an eco-oops in your advertising.  If you haven’t read them since they were revised in 2012, it's time for a refresher.  Second, consumers – and the FTC – live in the Real World.  That’s a theme that runs throughout the Guides.  A product may have a theoretical environmental effect in a lab setting, but your ad claims should reflect actual consumer use.  So if a product may be recyclable in some technical sense, but there’s no place for people to conveniently recycle it, craft your claims accordingly.  As the Green Guides make clear, companies should qualify their recyclability representations if “recycling facilities are available to less than a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the item is sold.”  Third, manufacturers, take note:  You’re responsible for the accuracy of claims you pass on to distributors and retailers.

File your online comments about the proposed settlement by March 24, 2014, and bookmark the FTC's Environmental Marketing page for guidance on keeping your green claims.  This video is a good place to start:

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