UK ad watchdog to crack down on ‘biodegradable’ and ‘recyclable’ claims

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Plastic bottles, takeaway cups and food packaging that could take an unlimited amount of time to break down are being advertised as “biodegradable”, with the advertising regulator calling for more clarity on such claims from businesses.

British consumers believe they are making green choices while disposing of waste when they are often not, according to a new report. The study, from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), based on extensive interviews with consumers, found widespread misunderstandings around common terms such as “biodegradable”, “compostable” and “recyclable”, leaving participants angry when they discovered what they meant.

According to the ASA, households in the UK take pride in recycling and food-waste management, and hope to play their part in preventing the destruction of nature by putting rubbish into correct bins or buying products with green packaging.

However, some participants in the new research believed the labelling meant that packaging would disappear entirely or decompose. Some of those surveyed were surprised to learn that “biodegradable” packaging has an unlimited timeframe to break down and could produce toxins.

Many “compostable” products need to be taken to a specialist waste centre and would not break down in a household compost bin, although many of those surveyed believed the products could be composted at home.

Miles Lockwood, director of complaints and investigations at the ASA, said the regulator would be cracking down on the use of the terms in adverts as part of its action on greenwashing.

“Consumers were telling us that they were proud of what they were doing on the environment. They have green bins, they were separating things out, they were doing their bit for the environment and it made them feel good.

“When we began to explain the differences between recycling in the home or recycling in a centre, it created a sense of depression or disappointment at what is happening,” said Lockwood.

“People assume because it’s ‘compostable’, they can put it into their garden compost bin. When you explain that you can’t and it’s not going to compost without being taken to a council facility, it generated a really negative response,” he said.

“With the issue of biodegradability, there is no definition of what makes something biodegradable. It can take years and sometimes degrade into microplastics – that created a real sense of disappointment and anger. Businesses need to work a lot harder to explain the difference.”Previous studies have shown that most plastics marketed as “home compostable” do not work, with as many as 60% failing to disintegrate after six months. Pollution is a leading driver of biodiversity loss and waste is a significant source of methane emissions.

‘Compostable’ plastic bags often will not decompose in a home compost heap, and must be handled in a council facility.
Photograph: Angela Hampton Picture Library/Alamy

In recent years, the ASA has banned ads that it felt misled consumers on the climate crisis and the destruction of nature. In 2022, the ASA banned a Lipton Ice Tea advert for giving the impression that the bottle was made from entirely recycled materials when the cap and label were not.

It has previously upheld complaints about baby wipes and dog poo bags over their biodegradability claims, and promised to ban claims of “carbon neutrality” using offsets, amid concerns that many offsets have no benefit to the climate.

The ASA research also showed how participants routinely believed environmental claims in advertising, assuming that brands would not be able to make claims without verification or evidence, particularly when a company made a claim using statistics. Those surveyed said they wanted clear information about what was in products, where it would be disposed, how long that would take and what the outcome of the disposal would be.

The report comes against a backdrop of tighter restrictions on green claims in advertising. Last week, the ASA banned two Toyota adverts for condoning driving that disregards its environmental impact, stating that the SUV ads had been created without “a sense of responsibility to society”.

“Business are trying to get it right but they often make really silly mistakes. Half the time we see companies who are a bit too enthusiastic, who are a bit too broad brush and a bit vague, who don’t walk consumers through a journey with them. They make assumptions about what consumers know,” said Lockwood.

“We have been focusing a lot on cases around oil and gas, airlines and banks and so on. We are calling time in those sectors on companies making ‘green halo claims’, where they just focus on the green bits of what they do and ignore the rest,” he said.

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