It's never a good sign when 23 district attorneys are coming after you. But that's what happened when almost two dozen California district attorneys targeted retailing giant Amazon over plastic products labeled as "compostable" or "biodegradable" on its website. Golden State statutes ban such claims without caveats about exactly how long it will take for the product to actually break down. (Somewhere between 450 and 1,000 years.)
But Amazon settled those claims last week, dishing out $1.5 million and agreeing to fund testing of plastic products marketed to consumers as compostable or degradable.
Many Californians are willing to pay a premium for products based on environmentally friendly claims, according to Napa District Attorney Allison Haley. "However, the ability of plastic to decompose depends greatly on the environment in which it is placed," Haley said in a statement following the settlement. "Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose in typical landfill conditions. Since biodegradability claims are inherently misleading, California law imposes an outright ban on the sale of plastics labeled 'biodegradable' (or labeled with similar language)."
Amazon responded quickly to stop sales of "biodegradable" plastic products, according to prosecutors and cooperated with investigators. The retailer also agreed to ban sales of plastic products labeled as "biodegradable," "degradable," or "decomposable," and refrain selling plastic products labeled as "compostable" without appropriate scientific certification that the products can be composted. "Over the past several years Amazon has already voluntarily been in compliance with these laws," the company asserted in its own statement, "and we are pleased to bring this issue to a mutually satisfactory conclusion with the District Attorneys."
Napa joined 22 other counties in suing Amazon, along with Alameda, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, El Dorado, Fresno, Humboldt, Lake, Madera, Merced, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Tuolumne, and Yuba. "Given the increased focus on reducing plastic waste," said Napa County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Collins, "this judgment will help ensure that customers are not misled about which plastic products will actually break down in the landfill or compost."
Consumers looking to purchase "green" products should avoid plastic products altogether, regardless of claims about degradation, decomposition, or compostability, especially if they don't live in California.