The California legislature initiated legislation that would prohibit labeling any plastic product sold in California as “biodegradable,” “degradable,” or “decomposable,” absent standard specification for such terms. Currently, California law forbids such terms on food packaging or plastic bags, but Senate Bill 1454 would expand the scope of covered items to include all products that contain plastic components.

The American Society for Testing and Materials presently has no standard specification for the term “biodegradable” or “degradable” as it applies to plastic. According to the bill, the use of such terms on plastic items is inherently misleading to consumers, who will be more likely to litter an item labeled “biodegradable,” resulting in harm to the state and environment.

“Littered plastic products have caused and continue to cause significant environmental harm and have burdened local governments with significant environmental cleanup costs,” according to the legislation. “It is the intent of the Legislature to ensure that environmental marketing claims, including claims of biodegradation, do not lead to an increase in environmental harm associated with plastic litter by providing consumers with a false belief that certain plastic products are less harmful to the environment if littered.”

The legislation leaves room for labeling a product “compostable” or “marine degradable,” terms for which the ASTM has set a standard specification. The bill provides for civil penalties but expressly leaves room for actions under the state’s consumer protection law as well.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has until September 30 to veto the legislation or sign the bill into law.

To read SB 1454, click here.

Why it matters: The law could have implications for national retailers who sell products in California. The issue, however, could be mooted by the soon-to-be released updated Green Guides from the Federal Trade Commission. The Guides currently allow an item to be labeled “biodegradable” or “degradable” if the claim is “substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature.” Such claims must also be qualified “to the extent necessary to avoid consumer deception about: (1) the product or package’s ability to degrade in the environment where it is customarily disposed; and (2) the rate and extent of degradation.”