A lawsuit over biodegradable bottle claims is a reminder of the  benefit of federal standards.

When I was a newly minted brand assistant at Procter & Gamble in 1976, we were taught first and foremost to respect the laws governing marketing and business practices. At the top of that list were the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines regarding advertising and promotion, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. These rules created a level playing field that allowed P&G and its competitors to engage in fair trade. We all knew which lines not to cross and the consequences associated with doing so.

Starting with the Reagan Administration, many federal regulatory bodies were dismantled, gutted, or rendered of little consequence. At first, businesses thought this was great. After all, couldn’t we all comply with existing laws and regulate ourselves?

We all know how well this worked out for the banking and investment community. But, we’re seeing the same results in the packaging community as well. Take the issue of biodegradation.

Unlike recycling claims, which have been regulated by the FTC, there are as yet no equivalent regulations for compostable and biodegradable plastics. There is a standard – ASTM 6400, but it is a technical standard that requires very specific biodegradation conditions, especially when it comes to heat. In fact, the heat needed generally requires an industrial composting facility, of which there are few available. (For reference, home compost piles won’t generally create enough of the right conditions to cause plastic containers made from supposedly compostable plastics to actually break down.)

In their desire to be perceived as sustainable, many consumer marketers, both large and small, used compliance to ASTM 6400 standards as a way to promote their bottles, jars and jugs as being compostable. They then trumpeted this fact to retailers and consumers, who thought this meant that they could simply put the used containers in the backyard composters or their municipal composting systems. (Many also think that they can simply throw their empties out the window and that the sun, wind, and rain will do the rest.)

This is exactly how recycling claims got started – marketers stated that anything that was technically recyclable was in fact recyclable. To fight this, the FTC established guidelines that required recycling to be available to 60% of the population before a sweeping claim to be made. Otherwise, the claim would have to be qualified with statements such as “Recyclable in your local area” or “Not currently recyclable in your local area.”

No such rules or laws exist for compostability, and the FTC is not exactly at the forefront of either qualifying or enforcing environmental marketing claims. Thus, a vacuum was created.

Enter the states. By now, you must be aware that the California Attorney General is suing a resin supplier and two water bottlers that are using biodegradable bottles for making false claims regarding compostability, and for the fact that these bottles contaminate standard bottle recycling streams.

Regardless of the outcome of the suit, California will most likely start imposing its own version of what should have been federal guidelines on so-called compostable and biodegradable plastic containers. Next will come (in no particular order), Texas, Florida, Washington, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont.

Wouldn’t it have been more cost effective to live within one set of federal standards rather than 50 different sets of state standards? Not only would this have made more economic sense, but it would have also reduced the likelihood of the inevitable consumer backlash against packaging and plastics in general.

Careful what you wish for. You may just get it and have to live with the unintended consequences.

Robert M. Lilienfeld is a Fox TV environmental commentator and Editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter dedicated to conserving resources and reducing waste. Along with Dr. William J. Rathje, he co-authored the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are and the 1995 landmark New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled Six Enviro-Myths. His website is Use-less-stuff.com