Late last month, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit against the two bottled water companies and their bottle supplier, ENSO Plastics, charging that these environmental claims are false and mislead consumers, as well as violate state law.
ENSO, an Arizona-based plastics manufacturer, mixes a biodegradable additive into plastics during the manufacturing process. According to the company’s website, the preferred method of disposal for their bottles is recycling: “Plastics utilizing ENSO are also fully recyclable and can be mixed into existing recycling streams without resulting in contamination.”
But, if an ENSO plastic bottle ends up in the landfill – as plastic bottles often do – the company says the bottle is designed to decompose in less than five years in a landfill’s anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environment. Microbes in the landfill devour the additive, secreting enzymes which break down the plastic’s polymer chain into materials easily consumed by microbes, according to ENSO.
But plastics recyclers, recycling advocates and now the California attorney general contend that ENSO’s plastic bottles are neither recyclable nor biodegradable.
“The bottles’ labeling states that the bottles will break down in less than five years in a typical landfill or compost environment, but that claim is false because the additive does not speed up the centuries-long process required to break down plastic,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
Recycling advocates, like Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, worry that consumers, believing the water bottles to be biodegradable, will toss them in the trash instead of the recycling bin, where they will languish in the landfill – or even worse, litter them in the natural environment.
“Some consumers may be falsely deceived into thinking that the ‘biodegradable’ claim means these plastic bottles will break down in the ocean environment,” Murray said in a statement. “They won’t. If these bottles become ocean litter, they will remain intact for decades or longer as floating ocean pollution.”
Labeling plastics products as “biodegradable,” “degradable” or “decomposable” is also illegal under California law, and products must meet certain standards to use the label “compostable.” The Golden State placed these labeling restrictions on plastic bags and food packaging in 2008, and the governor recently signed legislation extending these requirements to all plastic products beginning in 2013.
In addition to concerns over their biodegradability, the recyclability of ENSO’s plastic bottles has also been called into question.
The Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) currently considers plastic with degradable additives to be a contaminate to the recycling stream and applauds the attorney general’s recent legal action, the industry group said in a statement.
APR worries that biodegradable plastics may cause premature product failure in recycled plastic products that are intended to last for a long time, including strapping and textiles, and calls for further testing of these plastics.
Danny Clark, president of ENSO Plastics, said in the company’s blog that the company stands by its technology and its claims that its bottles are both biodegradable and recyclable.
“ENSO Plastics has all intentions of working with the California attorney general to comply with the labeling law,” Clark said. “We will continue forward with pursuing our mission to help solve the world’s plastic pollution issue and continue to improve the science and validity of our young industry.”
The Plastics Environmental Council, an industry group focused on biodegradable plastics, also released a statement, saying that it has been working with Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University on further testing of biodegradable plastics to comply with the 2013 deadline of California’s plastic-labeling law.