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Diaper Maker’s Environmental Claims Halted : Marketing: The FTC says the Orange County manufacturer of ‘Bunnies’ must pull ads and labels on biodegradability.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ads and product labels that boast about biodegradability may soon have to clean up their acts.

In its first public settlement of a biodegradability claim, the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday ordered an Orange County company to stop saying that its diapers will decompose in landfills.

American Enviro Products of Placentia, which makes “Bunnies” disposable diapers, agreed to stop running ads--and placing labels on its products--that claim the diapers will decompose “within three to five years” or “before your child grows up.”

The action is a clear warning to other makers of plastic diapers and trash bags who--eager to latch on to consumer concerns about the environment--have made similar claims. More FTC actions against others who make environmental claims are expected this year.

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“We’re not just picking on one company,” said Lee Peeler, assistant director for advertising practices at the FTC. “We have a range of investigations.”

In June, Mobil paid California and five other states $150,000 to settle charges that it misled consumers about the biodegradability of its trash bags. But diapers, not trash bags, have the FTC’s immediate attention. An estimated 40 million diapers a day are shipped to landfills.

Executives at Enviro Products expressed outrage that they were singled out. “Bigger competitors are allowed to do the same thing,” said Robert Chickering, president of American Enviro. He said ads last year for Luvs and Pampers diapers claimed that they were “compostable.”

Nearly 10 months ago, shortly after the FTC complained, American Enviro greatly toned down its labels and advertising for Bunnies diapers. It removed the large lettering on the box that said “biodegradable” and replaced it with a chart that outlines environmental information.

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“This is old news,” said Chickering, who noted that actions such as this may stop other entrepreneurs with environmentally progressive products from entering the marketplace.

But environmentalists applauded the FTC actions and said they may discourage other companies from exaggerating the environmental qualities of their products. “A warning shot has now been fired across the bow,” said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. “But our view is the FTC should not only pursue these individual cases but also issue formal guidelines.”

Officials at Greenpeace USA say this is only a beginning. “Companies will go as far as they can until they are pushed back,” said Peter Bahouth, executive director for the Washington-based group. “The only thing ‘green’ means to most companies is greenbacks.”

Worst Offenders?

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The Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund offers these five examples of what it says are among the most misleading environmental claims made by makers of consumer products:

* Procter & Gamble said in its product advertising and labeling that its Luvs and Pampers diapers were “compostable.” EDF says the claim is misleading and points out that virtually no consumer has access to composting facilities that accept diapers.

* Dart Container Corp. foam cup packaging includes labels that the cups “are better for landfill” and “are recyclable.” EDF says the claims are deceptive and few consumers have access to recycling facilities for the cups.

* Lepage Inc.'s package of transparent tape said the product is environmentally safe and degrades rapidly. EDF says the “environmentally safe” claim is false and the degrading claim is misleading.

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* Icelandic Marketing’s aseptic drink boxes say the packages are biodegradable and “harmless” when incinerated. EDF says the claims are misleading and deceptive and points out that nothing is without any harm when incinerated.

* Stone Container’s label on brown paper grocery sacks say the paper is recyclable and degradable. EDF says the paper will not degrade much in most settings and consumers would have few opportunities to recycle it.


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