The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides are being revised and we need your help!
Plastic packaging, which is largely derived from fossil fuels, is harming us in a number of ways: it is contributing to the climate crisis, creating plastic pollution across our oceans, waterways and communities, and increasingly being linked to negative health impacts. These problems disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, and communities in the global south.
For decades U.S. consumers have been misled by the fossil fuel industry to believe that most plastic packaging is recyclable and recycled. But in fact, a recent Greenpeace report shows that today less than 6% of American plastic packaging is actually recycled. Meanwhile, global plastic packaging production continues to increase every year.
Today we have an historic opportunity with the upcoming revision of the FTC Green Guides to establish new Federal definitions of “recyclable” and “biodegradable” for plastic that can help reduce confusion and misinformation for consumers. With updated definitions of “recyclable” and “biodegradable” that consider actual end-of-life options for materials, companies can provide consumers with a more accurate sense of what materials are likely to be recycled. This is a powerful opportunity to help stop the greenwashing done by the plastic industry and marketers of products sold in plastic packaging. Accurate and complete definitions of recyclability and biodegradability will also help create opportunities for improved recycling and composting infrastructure and material innovation. Better infrastructure and material innovation can in turn reduce plastic pollution, increase soil health, drive more sustainable packaging development, spur more cost-effective waste management, and ultimately support a more just, circular and truthful economy.
What are the FTC Green Guides?
The role of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is to protect and educate U.S. consumers on topics related to commerce. The FTC’s sole environmental program, the Green Guides, are a set of rules about the ‘green’ terms and claims companies can use to describe consumer products or services. Terms like “recyclable,” “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and so many more are covered by the Green Guides. When companies use these terms correctly on their packaging, websites, or other marketing materials, they help consumers understand the environmental impacts of consumption and make better choices for themselves, animals, people, and the planet. First written in 1992, the Green Guides have been updated several times over the years as the science, technology, environmental issues, and public interest in ‘green’ terms has changed. The last revision was in 2012, and they are now up for revision again, so the FTC is soliciting feedback from the public; everyone is welcome to weigh in.
The FTC has asked specific questions that are more general such as “Is there a continuing need for the Guides? Why or why not?” as well as questions about specific terms. We hope you’ll join us and speak up at this historic moment. There are many changes to the Green Guides being considered, but there are two terms of particular interest to Dr. Bronner’s related to plastic that we are urging the FTC to update.
We Must Update the Federal Definition of Recyclable
RECYCLABLE: The Green Guides current definition of ‘recyclable’ (16 CFR 260.12) must be updated to address the plastic pollution and misinformation crises we are facing today and more accurately reflect actual recyclability. This is the single most important change we can make to address the most pernicious form of packaging greenwashing, and one that enables the plastics industry to avoid accountability. Fortunately, there is already a legal precedent set by the landmark 2021 California bill, SB 343, “Truth in Labeling for Recyclable Materials”, and the FTC could follow this legal precedent and expand it nationwide. The “Truth in Labeling for Recyclable Materials” law will prohibit the use of the chasing-arrows symbol and the term “recyclable” on materials that are not truly recyclable. Under this California law, a product or its packaging can only be labelled as recyclable, which includes using the chasing arrows symbol, if:
- It is designed to be recyclable and therefore does not include any components, inks, adhesives, or labels that prevent recyclability;
- It does not contain perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances (“PFAS”);
- It is collected through curbside recycling programs that collectively encompass at least 60% of the state; and
- It is sorted into defined streams for purchase by reprocessing facilities consistent with the requirements of the Basel Convention.
We Must Use Science to Guide the Definition of “Degradability”
BIODEGRADABLE: This term is subject to much debate given the variability in how different materials break down in different conditions and environments. As we look to reduce consumer confusion about plastic packaging and hope to see materials nourishing our soil at the end of their use instead of polluting, defining “biodegradable” is increasingly important.
As part of the FTC Green Guides’ request for public comments, there are two specific questions posed to the public about the term “degradable”:
- a. Should the Commission revise the Guides to provide an alternative timeframe for product decomposition for all or any category of products? Does the timeframe differ for liquid products?
- b. If so, why, and what should the timeframe be? If not, why not? What evidence supports your proposed revision(s)?
- c. Should the Commission clarify or change existing guidance on degradable claims in light of its decision in the ECM Biofilms matter?4 If so, how?”
We think this is the wrong question and the wrong approach. Instead of the Commission revising the Guides to provide alternative timeframes for degradability, we recommend the Green Guides refer instead to specific standardized test methods for different types of products; for example, to distinguish between the biodegradability requirements for a solid plastic package versus those for a liquid product. If there is no established test method to substantiate a biodegradability claim for a certain material, then the Green Guides should clearly state that using that claim is misleading.
How Long is the Open Comment Period?
The FTC is seeking public comment on the Green Guides now through April 24, 2023 on both general issues and specific terms.
How Can I Comment?
Anyone who is interested can comment on the Green Guides. Comments can be submitted by an individual, an organization, or anonymously. Comments can be in response to a specific question or term, or more general, but all comments should reference “ Green Guides Review, Matter No. P954501” to help the FTC keep track.
To submit a comment in response to FTC’s request for public comment on the Green Guides, go to https://www.regulations.gov/document/FTC-2022-0077-0001, and select the Comment button:
Clicking “Comment” will open up the following page, on which a letter can be posted as an attachment, or text can be added in the body of the comment. “Green Guides Review, Matter No. P954501” should be identified in the comment.
Here Is an Example of a Short Comment:
Re: Green Guides Review, Matter No. P954501
I urge The Federal Trade Commission to update the definition of recyclable following the legal precedent of California’s Law SB 343, “Truth in Labeling for Recycled Materials.” This update is necessary to help reduce consumer confusion about plastic’s recyclability. Further, I urge The Commission to update the definition of biodegradable to refer to specific standardized test methods for different types of products; for example, to distinguish between the biodegradability requirements for a solid plastic package versus those for a liquid product. If there is no established test method to substantiate a biodegradability claim for a certain material, then the Green Guides should clearly state that using that claim is misleading.
Comments are encouraged to reference empirical data or other evidence as available in support, so please feel free to review and reference the following sources, with many thanks to circular packaging experts at RCD Packaging Innovation and environmental nonprofit groups Just Zero and The Last Beach Clean Up :
– Greenpeace, Circular Claims Fall Flat . (Feb. 18, 2020)
– Greenpeace, Circular Claims Fall Flat Again – 2022 Update. (Oct. 24, 2022)
– RCD, Fixing the Recycling System – Take Action Now!
– Amcor, “ Amcor research shows consumers worldwide want to recycle more .” (Nov 18, 2021)
– Shelton Group, “ Engaging Middle America in Recycling Solutions ,” (Aug. 27, 2020)
– Mohamed Arouri, et al., “ Greenwashing and Product Market Competition ”, Science Direct, Vol 42, ISSN 1544-6123. (Oct. 2021).
Where Can Comments Be Submitted?
Online submission is strongly encouraged. “Green Guides Review, Matter No. P954501” should be written on the comment. Comments may be submitted online by April 24, 2023 here: Federal Register :: Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims or here: https://www.regulations.gov/commenton/FTC-2022-0077-0001 .
If you prefer to send comments by mail, send it to:
Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Suite CC-5610 (Annex J)
Washington, DC 20580.
Be sure to reference “Green Guides Review, Matter No. P954501.
Please join us and raise your voice! Let’s stop consumer confusion and corporate greenwashing about plastic and help build a more just and circular future for all!