FTC Green Guides
Determining the legality of employing environmental claims and/or logos for the advertising and marketing of a product is a complex undertaking. For this reason, the Federal Trade Commission developed the Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. Although these Green Guides delineate which environmental claims can be attributed to certain products, unfortunately, the terminology used can be quite confusing. So this overview will assist you and your customer in distinguishing when and when not to employ various environmental claims.
(Note: This summary is taken from the FTC’s proposed revisions released in 2010.) The FTC states that it is deceptive to represent that a product, package, or service offers a general environmental benefit without substantiating the claim. (For instance, if the process of creating a package releases harmful substances into the environment, it would be misleading to assert that said package is "environmentally friendly because the package was not chlorine bleached.") Moreover, unless it is accompanied by text limiting its environmental superiority, recognizable environmental symbols or logos (such as a globe icon or chasing arrows logo) should not be printed on the packaging if they are likely to mislead consumers into thinking that the product is environmentally superior to another product.
Any source reduction claims (claims that a package is lower in weight, volume, or toxicity than another package) must include text that substantiates the amount of waste as less by specific comparison. For instance, one cannot only state that a package generates 10% less waste. Rather, one must say, “generates 10% less waste than a previous package” (or other similar qualification). Source reduction alone is not the sole determinant of a more environmentally sustainable package so if used without qualification, it may be deemed to be misleading.
Any claims of biodegradability must be substantiated by scientific evidence that the package will decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after disposal. For instance, a trash bag cannot be marketed as “degradable” or “biodegradable” if studies show that it will only decompose in the presence of water and oxygen (as trash bags are customarily disposed of in incineration facilities or at sanitary landfills, where there is a lack of moisture and air).
Any claims that a package is compostable must be substantiated by scientific evidence that all the materials in the package will break down into usable compost in a “safe and timely“ manner in a composting facility or in a home compost pile or device. Although “safe and timely” has not yet been defined by the FTC, ASTM International, the leader in the development and delivery of voluntary consensus standards, suggests a time frame of 12 weeks. So if a package cannot break down into usable compost within 12 weeks, compostability claims must be accompanied by a disclaimer that says that the package is not suitable for home composting, that appropriate composting facilities may not exist in one’s area, and/or provide a list of the approximate percentage of communities/population for which such programs are available. Moreover, any claim that a package is compostable in a municipal composting facility must mention the limited availability of such facilities.
A package can only be marketed as recyclable if it can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the solid waste stream for reuse—or in the manufacture or assembly of another package or product—through an established recycling program. For packages that are made of both recyclable and non-recyclable components, all claims should mention which parts are recyclable. One cannot publish a claim of recyclability if any component significantly limits the ability to recycle a package, even if the component is incidental. Moreover, qualified statements are required for packaging material that are distributed in areas where a substantial majority of consumers do not have access to recycling programs or collection sites.
A recycled content claim may be made only in reference to the use of materials that have been recovered or otherwise diverted from the solid waste stream, either during the manufacturing process (pre-consumer/post-industrial) or after consumer use (post-consumer). When recycled content includes pre-consumer material, these claims must be backed up with proof that said material would otherwise have entered the solid waste stream. All claims about the specific pre- or post-consumer recycled content of a product or package must also be substantiated. For packages that are only partially made of recycled material (such as a recycled-content paperboard box in a shrink-wrapped plastic cover), a recycled claim printed on the package must list the amount, by weight, of recycled content in the finished package. Without this, the consumer may be misled into thinking that the plastic is made of recycled content as well.
For more info, read:
FTC Green Guides Summary (pdf)
FTC Green Guides (pdf)