Seven states yesterday fired a warning shot at companies making environmental claims for their products, suing a Mobil Corp. subsidiary over claims that its Hefty trash bag is degradable in sunlight.
The attorneys general of New York, Minnesota, California, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin filed separate suits charging Mobil Chemical Co. with deceptive advertising, despite Mobil's announcement in March that it was dropping the disputed claim for its trash bags.
"Until they are off the shelves, consumers will be misled to believe that 'degradable' Hefty bags are good for the environment," said Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III.
The states are attempting to remove from grocery shelves trash bags marketed with what they say is a misleading claim, and they are seeking civil penalties against the company that could reach more than $1 million.
Mobil Chemical spokesman Allen Gray said the company had been talking with states and had hoped to resolve the matter without a lawsuit, since it had already agreed to drop its claims. "We're disappointed here," he told the Associated Press.
The action against Mobil is the first in what is expected to be a series of similar actions against manufacturers that have seized on environmental concerns to market their products. A task force of attorneys general is looking at claims that have been made for, among other products, diapers, aerosol cans, polystyrene containers for fast food and plastic grocery bags.
Mobil marketed Hefty bags in boxes depicting a trash bag in the sunshine next to an evergreen tree and the slogan, next to a picture of an eagle, that said, "Hefty Helps!" Mobil said the bags are photodegradable, meaning they break down in sunlight.
New York Attorney General Robert Abrams said the bags would quickly decompose only under laboratory conditions and noted that most of the nation's trash ends up buried in landfills, untouched by sunlight.
Humphrey said that Mobil, before it decided to market its own trash bags as degradable, disputed the environmental claims of other bag manufacturers. His office supplied copies of a Mobil position paper asserting that plastic can be made photodegradable, but that "like its organic counterpart, degradable plastic would take decades to decompose in our landfill systems."
"Mobil has already said the very things we are saying here," said Humphrey. "Unfortunately, they gave into the temptation to try to exploit public perception."