“Paper or plastic?”  The age-old question, complicated by the creation of biodegradable plastic, has been broken down more.  Many people’s misgivings about using plastic bags were alleviated with the advent of plastic bags that can carry more weight with less guilt.  However, after this week, there is no question that the FTC is serious about deceptive claims surrounding biodegradable products.

On Tuesday, the FTC issued warning letters to fifteen marketers of “oxodegradable” plastic bags.  Oxodegradable plastic is made with an additive intended to cause it to degrade in the presence of oxygen.  The problem, according to the FTC, is that oxodegradable products will biodegrade, but not in landfills, where there may not be enough oxygen for the oxodegradable bags to degrade in the time expected.  Under the FTC’s Green Guides, products that are labeled “biodegradable” must degrade under conditions of customary disposal within a “reasonably short period of time.” The 2012 revisions to the Green Guides specifically cautioned that unqualified “degradable” or “biodegradable” claims for items customarily disposed of in landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities are deceptive, because the locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition would occur within one year.

This isn’t the first time the FTC has addressed the issue, and if the past is any indicator, it probably won’t be the last.  The warning letters follow five enforcement actions involving plastic biodegradability claims that the Commission brought last year.  The enforcement actions were brought as part of a program to ensure compliance with the agency’s Green Guides, and, given this week’s warning letters, it appears the FTC may have more targets in sight.

The companies who received warning letters must either stop making the oxodegradable claims, or produce reliable scientific evidence that their claims – unlike their bags – will not erode.  The Commission also warned that companies who did not receive warning letters should not assume that the FTC has given them the green light, and their claims might be subject to scrutiny in the future.

As we have said before, “Green Claims” – and particularly claims about biodegradable products – are a priority for the FTC.  The FTC has shown that it will continue to aggressively enforce its Green Guides and pursue claims with the violating companies.  As more “green” products enter the market, companies advertising and marketing products with recycled content should carefully review the FTC’s “Green Guides.”  Otherwise, your claims might disintegrate.