In a move that could have a major impact on the recycling industry, California Attorney General Kamala Harris will sue three national companies that make plastic bottles or sell bottled water in California, contending that they illegally claim their bottles are "biodegradable."
The lawsuit to be filed Wednesday, seeks to have tens of thousands of bottles of Aquamantra and Balance Water removed from supermarket shelves immediately. It asserts that the bottles used by those brands do not actually decompose naturally and that they contaminate other types of recycled plastic. Further, the suit states that their green-sounding labels could lead to increased littering if consumers believe that tossed bottles will decompose like apple cores or banana peels.
"The manufacturers of these bottles are taking advantage of Californians' concern for their environment," Harris said. "Consumers are led to believe they are being environmentally friendly by choosing these bottles. In fact, they could be further damaging our natural resources."
The court action, filed in Orange County Superior Court, names ENSO Plastics, a bottle-maker based in Mesa, Ariz., along with the retail companies that sell bottled water: Aquamantra, of Dana Point, and Balance Water, of West Orange, N.J.
The products of all three companies are found in stores across California and other states, including major grocery chains such as Whole Foods and Albertson's.
The law, by former Assemblyman Mark Desaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, came after concerns that companies were making claims about container materials that could not be scientifically supported.
Martin Chalk, a spokesman for Balance Water, said the company has been in contact with the attorney general's office.
"It's particularly frustrating," he said. "We're trying to do something good, but if it's determined that we haven't done enough research, then we'll switch bottles."
Chalk declined to answer specific questions about the bottles, such as how long they take to decompose, whether they break down into the same basic organic components as food or whether they contaminate the waste stream when mixed with other types of plastic bottles.
He referred specific questions to ENSO, the company that manufactures the bottles used by Balance Water.
Representatives for ENSO and for Aquamantra did not return calls seeking comment.
One of the state's leading recycling advocacy groups cheered the action, saying it could resonate nationwide.
"We're very happy that the attorney general's office is moving forward with this issue," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento environmental group. "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."
In its marketing materials, ENSO claims its bottles "biodegrade in anaerobic (landfill) environments, breaking down through microbial action into biogases and inert humus, leaving behind no harmful materials."
But Murray said studies have shown that the type of plastic used in ENSO's bottles -- basic PET plastic, which is mixed with a microbial additive -- doesn't really decompose the way natural materials do.
"We are not adding nutrients to the soil when these things break down," he said. "We are simply breaking the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces so it can't be seen."
Bottles deemed "biodegradable" are different from "plant-based" plastic bottles recently embraced by Coca-Cola, Odwalla juice, Heinz ketchup and a number of other companies.
Plant-based bottles are nearly identical to typical plastic bottles, which have the number 1 on the bottom but are made from sugar cane, corn and other materials instead of oil. They also can be recycled with traditional plastic, Murray said, while the "biodegradable" bottles have proved problematic.
"Even in small percentages, like one-tenth of one percent, these are just catastrophic for us," said Ed Byrne, CEO of Peninsula Packaging in Visalia. "They melt at different temperatures. They ruin our products."
Byrne's company, which buys flaked plastic from No. 1 PET bottles and turns them into clear plastic clamshell containers for strawberries, muffins, salads and other foods, said the biodegradable plastic causes the newly made containers to have slimy streaks.
"For anybody involved in the recycling stream," Byrne said of the lawsuit, "this will be good news."
Contact Paul Rogers at 408-920-5045.