Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Plastic company cannot claim biodegradability, FTC rules

By Ken McEntee

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has ruled biodegradability claims by a plastics additive manufacturer to be deceptive. The attorney for Painesville, Ohio-based ECM BioFilms said ECM will appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

“It is a disastrous decision that should be held as unconstitutional under the First Amendment,” said Jonathan Emord, of Washington D.C.-based Emord & Associates. “It is an egregious instance of abuse of agency discretion.”

Emord said FTC’s order against ECM reversed the decision of its own administrative law judge and contradicted the testimony of its own scientific experts.”

In January 2015, FTC’s Chief Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell ruled that ECM’s claim that its plastics additive, ECM MasterBatch Pellets, causes plastics to biodegrade was supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence and rejected FTC’s challenge to that claim. Chappell also rejected FTC’s argument that the term “biodegradable” implies that a product will completely biodegrade into elements found in nature within one year after customary disposal — a position articulated in the FTC’s Green Guides industry guidance.

Along with reversing the ALJ decision, FTC changed the one-year rule in its Green Guides to says that products must be proven to break down into natural elements within five years of disposal to claim biodegradability.

ECM advertised the additive causes plastics to be biodegradable, that plastics treated with MasterBatch Pellets are “biodegradable in a landfill” and that plastic products made with ECM additives “biodegrade in nine months to five years.”

Emord said the latter claim had been since withdrawn.

FTC in October 2013, filed an administrative complaint alleging that ECM’s claims were false or unsubstantiated. After about three months of hearings, the commission officially issued its opinion and final order against ECM on October 19. The order basically tells ECM to stop making claims of biodegradability.

“In its opinion, written by Commissioner Terrell McSweeny, the commission affirmed (Chappell’s) initial decision that ECM made deceptive claims that plastics treated with ECM’s additive would completely biodegrade in a landfill within nine months to five years, and that scientific tests supported this claim,” FTC announced. “The commission also upheld the ALJ’s finding that ECM encouraged its customers – companies that manufacture plastics – to pass on the deceptive claims to their customers and end-users.”

FTC said that based on its own examination of the evidence, it also found that ECM made implied claims that plastic products treated with ECM’s additive will biodegrade in a reasonably short period of time, or within five years, and that these claims were false and unsubstantiated. This reversed the ALJ’s finding that the commission did not prove that ECM’s environmental marketing conveyed such implied claims. In its ruling FTC considered ECM’s customers’ inability to “readily judge for themselves the truth or falsity of ECM’s claims.”

The FTC vote to approve the Opinion and Final Order was 4-0, with Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen dissenting in part and issuing a separate statement. In her statement, Ohlhausen agreed with the ALJ that FTC failed to prove that ECM’s unqualified “biodegradable” claim caused reasonable consumers to believe that treated products would biodegrade in a reasonably short time period.

“This is a momentous decision in the sense that is will transform the industry,” Emord told Composting News. “It promulgates a new rule amending the FTC Green Guide to say that plastic has to biodegrade into elements in nature within five years of customary disposal or you can’t call it biodegradable. The problem is that is not scientific. First of all, materials don’t ordinarily break down into elements - they break down into compounds. Any substance from a piece of wood to banana to a piece of paper breaks into compounds, not elements, which means that there is nothing that can qualify for the term ‘biodegradable.’”

Emord said the five-year rule for a substance breaking down into elements is “nutty.”

“Intrinsically biodegradable substances cannot be predicted to biodegrade within any set time period,” he said. “It depends on ambient environmental conditions and the relative presence of biota. Under the new FTC rule, a product that completely biodegrades five years and one minute after disposal is not lawfully labeled ‘biodegradable’ but one that completely biodegrades just one minute before is.”

Emord said more than 20 gas evolution tests done by ECM and companies that purchased the additive confirmed intrinsic biodegradability.

“Those are generally accepted tests and FTC rejected those tests and articulated what it would accept as biodegradable in broad terms,” Emord said. “There is no testing methodology to prove what they will accept. Nothing is going to completely break down, even if it is intrinsically biodegradable, within five years by any reliable measure.”

Emord said Mort Barlaz, of North Carolina State University, “who is recognized as one of, if not the top expert in the world on biodegradation of plastics in the world,” testified to the commission that the ECM additive made plastics intrinsically biodegradable.

“The method of testing was even affirmed as valid by FTC's own testifying expert, Dr. Thabet Tolaymat, a representative of the U.S. EPA,” Emord said. The judge agreed, in very tedious detail, that we showed proof of biodegradability, and that FTC did not prove otherwise. Without a reasoned explanation for departure from the science, the FTC adopted instead an arbitrary five-year cut off as the standard for allowing biodegradable claims. This is a very strange process where the prosecutor is also the judge. The commission simply rejected all of the evidence that convinced the ALJ of our case, and didn’t have to explain why.”

According to ECM, plastics treated with its additive has been tested and proved as biodegradable and safe for the environment by using the following ASTM test methods D5209, D5338 and 5511.

A complete history of the case against ECM can be found in FTC Docket No. 9358, at

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