ACCC appeals against court decision on Woolworths' 'biodegradable' picnic products

| 05.08,19. 10:30 PM |




ACCC appeals against court decision on Woolworths' 'biodegradable' picnic products


Photo: Woolworths said it would continue to defend its eco range. (Supplied

A marketing image of a Woolworths branded packet of 'eco' plates.


Australia's consumer watchdog is appealing against a Federal Court decision to dismiss its case against Woolworths over environmental claims made by the retail giant's range of 'eco' picnic products.


The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) alleged Woolworths had misled customers with its W Select Eco picnic products, which are billed as "biodegradable and compostable" crockery and cutlery.


The court dismissed its claim on technical grounds, saying the question of compostability would only be decided in the future.


ACCC chairman Rod Sims said if the picnic items went to landfill they may not biodegrade, so the ACCC would argue the marketing was a prediction about what would happen to the products in future.


   "And I think many consumers would think when something's biodegradable that they can just put it in the bin and it would biodegrade in the local landfill, and we don't think that's the case," Mr Sims said.


A Woolworths spokesperson said the retailer "will continue to defend the matter" and that the Federal Court made it clear the picnic products were biodegradable and compostable.


Consumers put 'a lot of weight' on green claims


Consumers and governments in Australia and around the world have been moving away from single-use products towards more environmentally friendly alternatives.


But doctoral researcher Kim Borg, from Monash University's Sustainable Development Institute, said confusion remained about what the best options were for reducing environmental footprint.


"We're sort of in the middle of a social shift away from plastic in general, people have demonised the material itself and more specifically, single-use plastics, to the point where people are now asking 'if I don't want to use it, what should I be using instead?'," Ms Borg said.


"From a consumer and from a behavioural perspective, we are creatures of habit, and so from our own perspective we want to do the easiest thing possible, which is the behaviour that closest resembles what we were already doing, but ideally with a more environmentally friendly product."


The ACCC announcement comes a week after the commission announced it was appealing against another Federal Court decision, which found the makers of Kleenex Cottonelle wipes had not misled customers over claims the wipes were "flushable".


"We are very aware that … quite a lot of consumers put quite a lot of weight on green claims," Mr Sims said.


   "Most people won't want to put a wipe down the toilet if they think it's not flushable and most people would be tempted to buy something if they felt it did biodegrade, versus plastic cutlery that didn't."


"So if consumers are going to be told these things, it's crucial that they're accurate. It's crucial both to meet consumer expectations and also we want consumers using the products that actually are green friendly, rather than the ones that simply assert that they are."

'I s


till wouldn't know which ones to pick'


Justice Debra Mortimer said in her July judgement that a reasonable consumer would understand "biodegradable" to mean it was able to be broken down, while "compostable" was to be understood as referring to something useful for the garden.


But many biodegradable and compostable products are unable to fully break down in landfill, and others need specific conditions and the right amount of oxygen or water to return to organic matter.


Water authorities in Queensland have taken the issue of wipes into their own hands, setting up a test to see which of the products would disintegrate in pipes and which could contribute to the giant blockages known as fatbergs.


In March, researchers at the University of Plymouth in the UK found even "biodegradable" plastic bags did not break down in any substantial way when they were left for three years.


The researchers concluded "biodegradable" plastic alternatives were no better in terms of producing less marine litter than standard plastic bags.


   "I've been studying single-use plastics for a couple of years now and I still wouldn't know which ones to pick," Ms Borg said.


"From a consumer perspective, you want the easiest thing, but from an environmental science or a waste prevention perspective, we want to go for avoidance."


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