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State sues over bottles' 'biodegradable' labeling

A plastic bottling company and two bottled-water companies are selling their products in California in containers labeled "biodegradable," a designation that is both false and illegal, Attorney General Kamala Harris said Wednesday in a lawsuit.

The suit seeks to remove the bottles from store shelves throughout the state using a 2-year-old California law that prohibits labeling any plastic food or beverage container as biodegradable.

Harris filed what she described as the "first-of-its-kind 'greenwashing' lawsuit" in Orange County Superior Court against Enso Plastics, which makes the beverage containers, and Balance Water Co. and Aquamantra, which sell their water in Enso bottles.

Enso introduced the containers in 2009, describing them in marketing as "the first truly biodegradable and recyclable PET (polyester plastic) bottles on the market."

The Mesa, Ariz., company said it added a resin containing microbes that would consume the plastics and reduce the bottles to purely natural ingredients in landfills or open air in one to five years without contaminating other recyclables or the environment.

Harris' staff said those claims were based on flawed tests and were unfounded.

"The additive does not speed up the centuries-long process required to break down plastic," the attorney general's staff said in a statement. Harris said a recycling industry group, the Association of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers, has described Enso's additive as a "destructive contaminant" that can weaken plastics.

A 2009 state law prohibits labeling any plastic food or beverage container as biodegradable. Enso's website advises retailers to comply with that law, but Balance and Aquamantra use the word on their labels, the suit said.

"Californians are committed to recycling and protecting the environment, but these efforts are undermined by the false and misleading claims these companies make," Harris said.

The suit seeks court orders prohibiting sales of illegally or deceptively labeled products, and penalties of up to $2,500 per violation.

Enso and Aquamantra could not be reached for comment. A representative of Balance Water said the company was in contact with Harris' office and will try to resolve the suit by changing its label and possibly its bottling as well.

"We believe California has taken a relatively extreme stance by banning all biodegradable labeling," said Martin Chalk, co-founder of Balance, based in New Jersey. "We went to quite a lot of expense and effort to use more environmentally friendly packaging."

Chalk said he still believes Enso's claims about its bottle have "significant scientific validation," which the Arizona company submitted to Harris early this year. He said Balance is a small company that sells fewer than 10,000 bottles of water in California each year, and Aquamantra, based in Southern California, also has modest sales in the state.

(read online version)

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