Calif. Attorney General Sues BevCos, Bottlemaker Over Biodegradable Claims

In what is being described as the first “greenwashing” lawsuit in the state’s history, California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a complaint last week against two beverage companies and a plastic bottle manufacturer for deceptively marketing and labeling their packaging as biodegradable and recyclable. The lawsuit could have far-reaching implications for how beverage companies choose bottle manufacturers and label their products. In the short term, however, it’s likely to have at least two water companies scrambling for replacement bottles to comply with the law.

The complaint names Balance Water, AquaMantra, and ENSO Plastics as defendants and claims that “the advertising and marketing practices of these companies are misleading to California consumers and businesses, and potentially harmful to the environment.” The lawsuit also states that the three companies are in violation of the state’s 2008 environmental law banning the words “biodegradable,” “degradable” or “compostable” on the labels of plastic food and beverage containers.

The lawsuit centers around ENSO Plastics’ specially coated PET bottles used by both Balance Water and AquaMantra. According to ENSO’s website, the bottles contain a microbial additive that is incorporated into PET resin during the manufacturing process.  ENSO claims that the additive will enable the bottles to naturally biodegrade within one to five years. The hitch is that the bottles would need to be placed in an environment with high microbial activity, such as a landfill.

The Attorney General’s Office, however, disputes ENSO’s claims that the additive will speed up the process of degradation. The lawsuit states that the claims are false, deceptive, and misleading and further notes that “items containing degradable additives… are considered contaminants by postconsumer plastic recyclers and, where possible, such items are culled out from recyclable plastics.” The Attorney General’s Office fears that consumers – thinking that the bottles will biodegrade – will improperly dispose of the bottles or will try and recycle them and cause problems for commercial recycling companies.

Both AquaMantra and Balance Water have said they will try to comply with the law.

Alexandra Teklak, the founder of AquaMantra, said that that her company’s decision to use ENSO bottles – though $0.05-0.10 more expensive than other PET bottles – was based on consumer demand for a biodegradable option and a desire to use the most environmentally-friendly container on the market.

“For us, it was a choice of what’s best for Mother Earth, and that’s what we went with,” Teklak said. “Sometimes you have to be a leader.”

However, Teklak stated that, until recently, she was unaware of the California statute concerning the use of the word “biodegradable.” After hearing about the complaint, Teklak said that she wants to be in compliance with the state and has removed the word “biodegradable” from AquaMantra’s labeling. Teklak also said that her company may stop using ENSO bottles until new testing and legislation by the state allow for exceptions to the current law.

“Our message is not about the bottle,” Teklak said. “So, if we move away and come back to it, it’s not a big deal.”

Martin Chalk, the founder of Balance Water, concurred. Chalk noted that the functionality of Balance, a line of wildflower-enhanced waters, was the most important aspect of the brand, not its packaging.

“We want to push the functional benefits of our flower essences,” Chalk said. “Our packaging is secondary.”

Chalk stated that he was currently in talks with the Attorney General’s office and though unable to discuss specific details, he said that he intends for Balance Water to be fully compliant with California law.