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FTC cracks down on biodegradability claims

By: Jeremy Carroll

October 30, 2013

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has taken aim at five plastics companies, alleging they used false or misleading claims of biodegradability. But one of those companies plans to fight the charges, saying it will win in the long run.

In an announcement of the action, the FTC said ECM BioFilms Inc., American Plastic Manufacturing, CHAMP, Clear Choice Housewares Inc. and Carnie Cap Inc. all made claims of their plastic being biodegradable which were unsupported, the agency said. All but ECM BioFilms have agreed to a consent agreement.

ECM BioFilms, based in Painesville, Ohio, claims that plastic products manufactured with the company’s additives will biodegrade in biologically-active environments after more than a year. The company uses an asterisk on its marketing materials when using the word “biodegradable,” pointing to the fact that it will take longer than a year for the material to biodegrade in landfills.

According to FTC's latest Green Guides, a company is allowed to market a product as biodegradable without a qualifier if the product breaks down in less than a year. FTC does not have guidelines on how to market products with a qualifier, the company alleges.

“We believe fully that we’re going to win in the long run,” ECM BioFilms President Robert Sinclair said in an interview with Plastics News.

He said the company has independent tests that show the products biodegrades in atmospheres that mimics landfills. A previous notice on its products said it would biodegrade in nine months to five years.

“[The FTC] can’t get themselves around it. They are going against the science,” Sinclair said.

The FTC alleges that the company misrepresents that plastics made from the additives are biodegradable and will completely break down “within a reasonably short period of time,” that the plastics will biodegrade in a landfill and that scientific tests prove ECM’s claims.

The complaint says ECM should be prohibited from making the claims.

Two of the other companies named by FTC, American Plastic Manufacturing and CHAMP, are customers of ECM. American Plastic Manufacturing sold plastic shopping bags that were marketed as biodegradable and CHAMP sold plastic golf tees marketed as biodegradable, FTC alleges.

Clear Choice Housewares and Carnie Cap are facing similar allegations. FTC said Clear Choice Housewares was a customer of another additive manufacturer, Bio-Tec Environmental, and marketed “biodegradable” plastic food storage containers. Carnie Cap used an additive manufactured and marketed by Ecologic for its plastic rebar cap covers, which claimed was “100 percent biodegradable,” FTC alleged.

All of the companies are not facing a financial penalty, but agreed to stop using the marketing.

FTC said the action is to ensure compliance with the agency’s Green Guides.

“It’s no secret that consumers want products that are environmentally friendly, and that companies are trying to meet that need,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “But companies that don’t have evidence to support the environmental claims they make about their products erode consumer confidence and undermine those companies that are playing by the rules.”

FTC has scheduled a hearing for ECM in June.