When you think about places lacking in oxygen, outer space might come to mind. But there’s another location right here on Planet Earth. And it’s the subject of 15 warning letters just sent by the FTC staff to companies making certain environmental marketing claims for plastic bags.
The FTC’s Green Guides offer insights for businesses about advertising their products or packaging as degradable – in other words, that they’ll break down and decompose into elements found in nature. Based on studies about how consumers understand those terms, the Green Guides advise that unqualified “degradable” or “biodegradable” claims for items that are customarily disposed in landfills, incinerators, or recycling facilities are deceptive because those locations don’t offer the conditions where decomposition will occur within one year. Spend a Saturday at a landfill, for example, and you’ll see stuff squeezed, smooshed, and stacked in a way that doesn’t give the elements much chance to hasten the process.
Which brings us to the subject of the warning letters: oxodegradability claims for plastic waste bags. Oxodegradable plastic contains an additive that’s supposed to cause it to degrade in the presence of oxygen. Some marketers of oxodegradable trash and pet waste bags suggest their products are a superior environmental choice to ordinary plastic bags.
The problem, of course, is where those oxodegradable bags go after we toss them out. Once they’re in landfills, there’s just not a lot of fresh air circulating to make it likely the bags will completely break down in the time consumers expect. That means that despite what some advertisers say, oxodegradable trash bags may be no more degradable than ordinary plastic bags when you consider how consumers typically use them.
The warning letters advise marketers that consumers likely understand “oxodegradable” or “oxo biodegradable” claims to mean the same thing as “biodegradable.” We’ve asked the companies to tell us if they plan to remove their oxodegradable claims from marketing materials or if they have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support what they say.
By the way, if you make oxodegradable claims for plastic bags and didn’t hear from us, now may not be the time to breathe a sigh of relief. It would be wise to take a second look at your claims, too.
The big-picture principle for other companies is that the FTC factors into the green calculus how consumers use products in real-world settings. Refer to the Business Center’s Environmental Marketing page for compliance resources.