Going to one of the few places the federal government dares not tread, states are breaking the necessary new ground to say what plastics recycling is, what it is not and how feasible it is. The agreement of voluntary compliance between the American Plastics Council and the attorneys general of 11 states requires the APC to pay what amounts to only a token fine, but establishes a precedent on how any advertiser may make recycling claims.
The plastics advocacy group budgeted $18 million for advertising with the theme, ``Take Another Look At Plastic'' in 1992 and 1993. The program produced a lot of good will and recognition nationwide for plastics both as durable items and as recyclable conveniences.
Throughout the advertising campaign, APC did not see it necessary to clearly define all the details about what plastic is recyclable in what communities. Such matters are essentially a local decision and unwieldy to include in a national message.
Up to this point, the Federal Trade Commission, which is now reviewing 3-year-old national standards for plastics recycling truth-in-advertising, has agreed with APC and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
But the 11 state attorneys general thought otherwise.
At the core of the states' contention was the advertisements' claims that 650 million pounds of plastic was recycled annually nationwide and that 4,400 communities included plastic in their curbside collection program. The states argued that the claims could have left the reader with the impression that all plastics were collected and recycled in all communities, which is not the case.
According to the settlement, if advertising depicts a plastic item as recyclable, it must ``clearly and conspicuously'' disclose that the recycling claims are applicable only to named specific products or packaging. Further, APC has agreed it will not make any claim about environmental benefits of plastics unless it possesses ``competent and reliable evidence'' that proves the point.
Any claims or statements about recycling will be accompanied by disclaimers that call consumers' attention to the fact that all plastics are not recyclable in all communities, and that certain or all plastics may not be recycled or recyclable in their particular community.
APC, despite the fine and agreement with the states, still remains in a quandary because the agreement does not say who determines ``clear and conspicuous disclosure'' and ``competent and reliable evidence.''
Even with the state-level agreement, it certainly will be difficult for the federal government to produce a clear set of guidelines. FTC, struggling mightily to please the industry and plastics critics alike, consented to the three-year review of its guidelines because the clash of opinions over the rules remained unabated after their imposition in 1992.
Thus, such definitions remain vague and unformed in federal law.
But federal regulators, cautious to a fault in establishing acceptable environmental advertising guidelines, now have some discernible language upon which to base any changes in the environmental ad guides.