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State Sues Mobil Over Hefty Bags : Environment: John Van de Kamp, along with other state attorneys general, files suit to stop makers of the trash bags from claiming product is degradable.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State Attorney General John Van de Kamp filed a consumer protection lawsuit Tuesday against the maker of Hefty brand plastic trash bags, alleging that Mobil Chemical Co. used false advertising to sell its so-called degradable bags.

The action, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleges that Mobil has misled the public with untrue claims that its plastic bags are good for the environment and that the plastic breaks down when exposed to the elements. In fact, the suit claims, the bags will not degrade when used in the usual manner.

“Such advertising seizes upon the public’s desire to do what is best for the environment and then preys on that desire to sell products,” Van de Kamp said in a statement. “We cannot let such advertising fool customers . . .”

The suit asks for an injunction to halt the use of the allegedly misleading claims and for civil penalties of at least $500,000. Van de Kamp was joined in his action by the attorneys general of six other states--Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin--who filed similar suits against Mobil on Tuesday.

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Allen H. Gray, a spokesman for the Virginia-based company, denied that the labeling is misleading. But he said that because many consumers are confused, the company already has agreed to remove claims of degradability from its packaging until common guidelines can be established.

“Right now it’s a morass out there,” Gray said, adding that Mobil has volunteered to lead a joint industry-government effort to standardize specifications for degradable products. “But you don’t achieve anything with litigation. We’ve got a strong case. We’ll fight if we have to. But the other alternative is much more productive.”

Doug Blanke, Minnesota’s assistant attorney general for consumer protection, agreed that the definitions of terms such as degradable, recyclable or environmentally safe are too vague. But, like California, Minnesota accuses the makers of Hefty bags of not merely confusing but intentionally deceiving customers.

“There is abundant evidence that Mobil Chemical Co. was fully aware of what the facts are, but they deliberately and cynically chose to manipulate public perceptions and to ignore the scientific facts for the purpose of making a profit,” Blanke said. “The only conclusion you can draw is that the marketing department got the better of the laboratories.”

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Van de Kamp’s suit concurs. It claims that Mobil fails to tell the public that its theories about degradability are unproven and that, even if the claims were true, consumers would have to expose their trash bags to the sun, wind and rain for weeks or months for the breakdown to begin. If used in the customary way--simply shipped to local landfills--the bags are not exposed long enough to the elements to trigger the degrading process, the suit claims.

In addition, the suit notes, Mobil states on the front of some products that they are “for recycling.” The suit claims that Mobil explains on the back of the package that the term means consumers can see through the bags to better keep track of the trash inside, some of which might be recyclable.

“It’s a traditional kind of false-advertising case involving representations made to sell a product that we claim are either deceptive or, if true, irrelevant to the products that are being sold,” said Al Shelden, California’s deputy attorney general for consumer law. The suit was filed in San Diego County for convenience, not because the company has any ties to the area, he said.

The lawsuits stem from an informal task force formed in November by the National Assn. of Attorneys General in Washington. In December, the task force approached several companies to inquire about the meaning of and the basis for several pro-Earth advertising claims.

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“We wanted to put a spotlight on this issue, to test whether it was as serious a problem as we thought it was,” said Blanke, who helped organize a public hearing on the issue in mid-March. At that hearing, attended by attorneys general from eight states, he said, “there was a broad consensus that there was a problem.


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