Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and attorneys general in six other states filed consumer protection lawsuits 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.
Van de Kamp’s lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleges that Mobil has misled the public with claims that its plastic bags are good for the environment and break 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 Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin--who filed similar suits against Mobil Tuesday.
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, Mobil already has agreed to remove claims of degradability from its packaging until 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,” he said. “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 like degradable, recyclable or environmentally safe are too vague. But like California’s suit, Minnesota’s accuses Mobil of intentionally deceiving buyers of Hefty bags.
Van de Kamp’s suit concurs. It claims that Mobil fails to tell consumers that its theories about degradability are unproved; and that even if they were true, consumers would have to expose their trash bags to the sun, wind and rain for weeks or months until the bags began to degrade. If used in the customary way--shipped to local landfills--the bags are not exposed to the elements long enough to trigger the degrading process, the suit claims.