The California Attorney General announced today the state has filed a lawsuit against ENSO Plastics, Aquamantra and Balance Water for allegedly falsely claiming their plastic bottles were biodegradable.

Accusing the companies of exploiting Californians’ environmental concerns, Attorney General Kamala Harris says labeling on the products that describes the bottles as biodegradable is not supported by evidence, and misleads consumers into thinking they can responsibly dispose of them in backyard composting or landfill. In addition to diverting plastic away from the recycling stream, degradable plastics that are recycled often contaminate recycled end-products, since a material produced will be pock-marked with patches of degradable plastic. Labeling plastic food or beverage packaging as “biodegradable” that does not meet specific ASTM degradability guidelines has been illegal in California since 2008.

“We’re very happy that the attorney general’s office is moving forward with this issue,” said Californians Against Waste executive director Mark Murray, speaking to the San Jose Mercury News, which broke the story. “The public has been deceived by this false environmental marketing, and we’re hopeful that this action will discourage others from making similar false environmental claims.”

“It’s also important to look at this issue from the perspective of the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, which have been in development since December 2010,” says Dave Cornell, technical director for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. “The definition of what constitutes a deceptive ad isn’t necessarily based on testing, it’s based on public perception. Based on public polling work done, the public expects something labeled as “degradable” to degrade in less than a year. None of the products currently on the market can meet that expectation.”

The products in question are said to be “biodegradable,” meaning they break down by enhancing the environment for naturally occurring microorganisms and enzymes to break down the material. This is in contrast to “oxo-degradable” materials, which rely on a series of chemical reactions to break down under specific conditions.

ENSO Plastics says products made using its additive will biodegrade under either anaerobic or aerobic landfill conditions. The company’s website also claims its products are fully compatible with existing recycling technologies, saying “If the recycle bin is not available, ENSO plastics should be placed into the trash can destined for a landfill. Plastics utilizing ENSO are also fully recyclable and can be mixed into existing recycling streams without resulting in contamination.”

ENSO is the primary supplier of degradable bottles to bottling companies Aquamantra and Balance Water. A May 2011 test of Aquamantra bottles by the Biodegradable Products Institute was halted after 45 days, with no biodegradation occurring using ASTM D5511 standards.

Reaction from the plastic recycling industry was swift with APR applauding the move by California, saying unsubstantiated claims hurt the overall recycling of plastics.

“APR has led the effort to force these marketers of degradable additives to validate their marketing claims that the use of the additives does not impact the recycling of PET bottles. This includes the second use of material into products like bottles, strapping, or carpeting,” said APR director Steve Alexander in a prepared statement. “We have worked to educate the California Attorney General’s office on these troubling and unsubstantiated claims and have asked for their help in curbing the threat to the practice and reputation of plastic bottle recycling.”

“We’re obviously interested in complying with the laws, but we’re also very passionate about cleaning up plastic pollution,” says ENSO president Danny Clark. “I think there’s a lot of information out there on degradable plastics that is misleading and skewed, and we’d like to see that corrected.”

But Cornell and others in the recycling industry are unconvinced.

“Show us data. Show us something. All of the studies put forth by companies like ENSO use a very short time frame and extrapolate it to draw their conclusions, but that’s simply not realistic,” says Cornell. “There are some serious quality control and safety issues here, and we need to know how these products perform. If they’re indistinguishable from regular plastic, buyers won’t want to assume the liability for material failure and may stop buying recycled plastic all together.”