Sure it's Biodegradable...In a Few Centuries

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cracked down on three companies Tuesday for making "false and unsubstantiated claims" that their products were biodegradable. According to Green Inc., the companies, which included Kmart, Tender and Dyna-E International, had mislabeled products like plates, moist wipes and the intriguingly titled "compressed dry towels."

Initially, this seems like a case of an FTC crackdown on greenwashing of the outright lies variety -- something along the lines of blatant misrepresentation (i.e., you call it Styrofoam, we'll call it biodegradable!). But it turns out to be a little more complex than that. At least one company -- Kmart -- believed its vendor's claim that plates from the American Fare brand were really biodegradable.

The FTC's problem is that while an object might be biodegradable in theory, it's not going anywhere if it's disposed of in the traditional ways: landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities. To market a product as biodegradable but fail to mention it requires composting (commercial or otherwise) is misleading.

The agency reports on its Green Guides Web site that a biodegradable claim should be substantiated by scientific evidence that the whole product decomposes shortly after "customary disposal." When suggesting a less ambiguous claim for marketers to use, Michael Davis, a lawyer with the F.T.C.'s Bureau of Consumer Protection suggested this gem of a line: "Biodegradable in 1,000 years." It's a pretty funny suggestion, but imagine if products really did carry little notes like that.

More greenwash at Greenwashing Works Is green consumerism a contradiction? Are some hybrids just greenwashed? Do car commercials greenwash?