Say Costco and JBR touted prohibited “green” marketing claims

Who Knew?

Clearly biodegradability is a major goal of the packaging industry – the market for bio-plastic was $19 billion in 2016, and experts expect that figure to be multiplied three times over by 2022. Consumers like buying products that claim to minimize their impact on the environment.

However, the current trash disposal solutions embraced by municipalities across the country – landfills – are unable to take advantage of the natural breakdown of specially engineered plastic containers. Any piece of trash is quickly buried in a landfill, and biodegradable materials need sunlight and oxygen to successfully break down. Buried underneath tons of refuse, the bio-plastic is simply compressed into another layer of the growing landfill.

Acknowledging this, California passed legislation (CA Public Resources Code 42355-42358.5) requiring clear scientific evidence for environmental claims, noting biodegradation is a complex process dependent on physical and chemical structure, environmental conditions, and time, and banning the use of words like, “degradable,” “biodegradable,” “decomposable,” or other like terms on or related to plastic products unless the claim includes a thorough disclaimer providing necessary qualifying details, including, but not limited to, the environments and time frames in which the claimed action will take place.

Da Flood

Claims of biodegradability were central to a suit recently brought by 25 California county district attorneys against retail giant Costco and coffee company JBR, manufacturer of plastic coffee pods and other coffee products. 

Led by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, the case was filed in response to JBR’s sale, through Costco, of these products and related wrapping material, which were labeled “97% biodegradable” and “biodegradable,” according to O’Malley’s office. Similar claims about composting were also made, according to O’Malley, and were addressed in the same complaint.

The Takeaway

Costco and JBR settled the dispute quickly, agreeing not to sell products labeled “biodegradable.” The companies also accepted a similar bar for the use of the word “compostable” without a scientific certification to support the claim.

In addition to these promises, the companies will pay a joint $500,000 fee covering penalties and costs.

Green claims are an area of particular regulatory scrutiny and class action litigation by consumers and environmental activists. A good starting point for guidance is the FTC’s Green Guides. However, beware of specific state laws, as well as state unfair and deceptive practice acts.