Vetoing a bill that would have prohibited labeling any plastic product sold in California as “biodegradable,” “degradable,” or “decomposable,” Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger instead signed a bill bringing the state in line with the Federal Trade Commission’s Environmental Marketing Guides (“Green Guides”).

The California Legislature passed a bill that would have prohibited labeling any plastic product sold in California as “biodegradable,” “degradable,” or “decomposable,” absent standard specification for such terms. Previously, California law banned such terms on food packaging or plastic bags, but Senate Bill 1454 expanded the scope of covered items to include all products that contain plastic components.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) 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.

Ultimately, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Instead, he signed a different piece of legislation that requires manufacturers to comply with the FTC’s Green Guides without establishing a higher standard of compliance in California. In his veto statement, Gov. Schwarzenegger said SB 1454 would have “greatly” expanded existing labeling requirements and expressed concern “about the much more expansive universe of plastic products that this bill would regulate and the unforeseen consequences that could result from such a vast expansion.”

He opted to sign an alternative bill, SB 228, which requires manufacturers of compostable plastic bags to meet ASTM standards to ensure that the bag is “readily and easily identifiable” from other plastic bags. “I think that bill represents a reasonable next step in providing information to the consumer and recyclers about the differences in biodegradable products,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said. The new law, which goes into effect July 11, 2011, prohibits compostable plastic bags from displaying any type of recycling symbol. However, the new law is superseded by the FTC’s Green Guides in certain instances, as a “manufacturer [is] required to comply with these requirements only to the extent that those labeling requirements do not conflict with” the federal guidance.

To read California’s new law, SB 228, click here.

To read Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto statement, click here.

Why it matters: In lieu of creating a heightened standard for biodegradable claims in the state, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s decision to sign SB 228 keeps California in line with the rest of the country. The FTC recently released proposed updates to its Green Guides, which would significantly tighten the standards for a range of environmental claims. For more information on the draft of the revised Guides, click here.