Australia & New Zealand Biodegradation & Compostation Packaging

Australian Lawsuit on Biodegradability and Compostability Claim

Woolworths has seen off a legal challenge from the consumer watchdog after a federal court judge found that a range of biodegradable plates and cutlery could turn into useable compost within weeks.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) had sued Woolworths, alleging the supermarket had made a false claim that its”Eco” branded dishes and cutlery were “biodegradable and compostable”.

The cutlery was made from a resin mostly derived from corn starch while the dishes were made from bagasse which is sourced largely from a fibrous byproduct of sugarcane or sorghum juicing.

Woolworths argued during the trial that in order to make the claim that a product was compostable it should break down into usable compost within two years.

The ACCC, meanwhile, argued the only way the products could be composted would be by a skilled composter which would take a considerable period of time.

Justice Debra Mortimer found that consumers were unlikely to consider how long disposable cutlery or plates would take to break down only that they were different to other similar plastic products.

She pointed to evidence from the ACCC’s own expert that the products would take about six months to turn into usable compost in well-managed compost and more than two years in less ideal conditions, which the watchdog claimed was unreasonable.

“I fail to see why that is an unreasonable period of time for anyone but an eager home composter,” she said.

The Woolworths expert claimed the material would break down in a matter of weeks in the correct conditions.

Justice Debra Mortimer said: “The use of the phrase ‘biodegradable and compostable’ on the labelling does not convey anything about how long the products might take to degrade, or to turn into compost. It is unrealistic to assume consumers who were purchasing these products would have been turning their minds to such matters.”

“The message conveyed by the phrase in its context was that the [products were capable of breaking down and being turned into something useful in the soil.

“Experienced composters or not, I find the consumer would have understood the phrase as meaning no more than that the products were capable of biodegrading, and were capable of being composted – in the same way the consumer would have understood the use of the description “recyclable” to refer to the capacity of a product to be recycled.”

A spokesman for Woolworths said the company was pleased the court had found it did not make false or misleading representations.

“We have always treated our obligations under the Australian Consumer Law very seriously, and understand how important it is that our customers can trust the environmental claims we make,” he said.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims hinted at an appeal saying the agency would carefully consider the judgment.

“We took this case because we believed the representations were false or misleading and Woolworths did not have a reasonable basis to make these claims,” he said.

“We will continue to take cases against businesses that we believe are making misleading environmental claims about their products.”

Justice Mortimer did criticise Woolworths for failing to consider properly whether it had a reasonable basis to make the claim in the first place.

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CLOSING REMARKS

  • Everything is biodegradable. Some things take weeks while other things take centuries or millenniums to (bio)degrade.
  • Biodegradable and compostable standards usually set the conditions and the amount of time in which the product should biodegrade to be able to make the claim.
  • What is a reasonable period of time?
  • Do you think people who live in cities with no gardens can do home composting?
  • Do you think Asians, Africans and Europeans perceive home compostability in the same way?

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This article was published on brisbanetimes.com.au and written by Mathew Dunckley