The California attorney general's office on Wednesday sued three companies over allegations they misled consumers by marketing plastic water bottles as biodegradable.
The lawsuit — said to be the first government action to enforce the state's environmental marketing law — accuses ENSO Plastics of Mesa, Ariz., of falsely claiming their bottles would biodegrade in less than five years, leaving behind no harmful materials.
It is illegal in California to label a plastic food or drink container as biodegradable when such materials can take thousands of years to break down, if at all.
"Californians are committed to recycling and protecting the environment, but these efforts are undermined by the false and misleading claims these companies make when they wrongly advertise their products as 'biodegradable,'" Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement.
Environmental groups have long griped about plastic bottles, which typically wind up in the trash after a single use and can only be recycled a number of times before the plastic degrades.
In 2008, the state Legislature enacted a law banning companies from false advertising on plastic food and beverage containers after finding that "littered plastic bags and plastic containers have caused and continue to cause significant environmental harm and have burdened local government with significant environmental cleanup costs."
The bill banned the use of words like "biodegradable," "degradable" or "decomposable" in the labeling, a law that will expand to all plastic products beginning in 2013.
Harris' lawsuit states that ENSO claimed in marketing materials to have developed a resin additive that contains microbial agents that speeds up the centuries-long process required to break down plastic. The suit also said the companies are calling the bottles recyclable when, in reality, plastic recyclers consider such bottles a contaminant and will separate them from recyclable plastics.
The suit names two companies that sell water in ENSO's bottles: Aquamantra, of Dana Point, Calif., and Balance Water, of West Orange, N.J. The products are found in stores across the country, ranging from small shops to major grocery store chains and health food stores such as Whole Foods.
ENSO couldn't comment on the lawsuit on Wednesday because company officials had yet to review it, company president Danny Clark said. He defended their technology but said the company would work with the attorney general to comply with the labeling law.
"We stand behind our technology and the claims that our company makes in stating that standard plastics enhanced with our biodegradable additive are fully recyclable and if placed in an environment with microbes, will naturally biodegrade," Clark said in a statement. "We in no way claim that our technology is the silver bullet to solving the massive plastic pollution issue our world faces. It is however a huge step in the right direction."
Balance Water and Aquamantra officials said they're disappointed that their companies were targeted after working hard to do something good for the environment. Both companies stand by the claim that their bottles are biodegradable, but said they would remove the labeling.
"I'm shocked that they have nothing better to do than go after companies that are doing their best for the environment," Aquamantra president Alexandra Teklak said. "We're such a small company. We don't even make $100,000 a year."
Martin Chalk, a co-founder at Balance Water, said the main feature of their product is flower essences in the drink. The company didn't need to use the more expensive biodegradable bottles but wanted to do the right thing, he said.
Chalk added that Balance Water has a former biochemist and a chemical engineer on staff who reviewed ENSO's studies and determined it was credible and "not quackery."
"At the end of the day, we will be compliant with the state of California," he said. "We will either remove the word or go back to regular, conventional non-biodegradable bottles."