WORLD CONSUMER RIGHTS DAY

Tackling misleading environmental claims on plastics

In Summary
  • Companies claiming their products are 100 per cent biodegradable do not provide consumers with full composting information, making the claims superfluous
  • The lack of global harmonisation of labels depicting various environmental claims adds to the confusion

The next time you order a takeout meal from your favorite restaurant, or buy a soft drink in a plastic bottle, bear in mind that approximately 40 per cent of all plastic produced is discarded after a single use and makes up most of the World’s waste.

A World Bank report on ‘Tackling Increasing Plastic Waste’, estimates that the weight of plastics in oceans will exceed that of fish by 2050 and that there will be about 12 billion tonnes of plastics in landfills.

Plastic manufacturing has doubled every 15 years, outpacing production of literally all other manmade products. The material is a convenient, cheap, and versatile packaging material compared to its substitutes.

Numerous propositions have been put forward to manage plastic waste effectively. For instance, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, Kenya banned the use of paper carrier bags and outlawed single-use plastics in protected areas like national parks and beaches.

While plastics use remains dangerously high and environmentally harmful, consumers have increasingly pivoted toward environmentally friendly products, spurred by the clarion call to reduce, reuse and recycle.

Labels such as “all natural”, “biodegradable”, “microwave safe”, and “ecofriendly” are now ubiquitous on plastic containers as businesses seek to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers.

Whereas this behavior change is commendable, some businesses are deceiving consumers by making false or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental attributes of their packaging. Greenwashing claims put the health and safety of consumers at risk.

According to the 2020 ‘Can I Recycle This?’ report by the United Nations Environment Programme and Consumers International, inconsistent on-packaging communication “contributes to significant consumer confusion regarding sustainability of plastic packaging.”

As part of marking this year’s WCRD, the Authority is sensitising consumers and businesses about potential violations with regard to environmental claims on plastic packaging, with the objective of spurring positive behaviour change.

Additionally, companies claiming their products are 100 per cent biodegradable do not provide consumers with full composting information, making the claims superfluous. The lack of global harmonisation of labels depicting various environmental claims adds to the confusion.

In this fluid environment, where marketing targets sometimes trump ethical business practice, consumers are unable to make informed decisions. Deceitful claims erode consumer confidence in business and damage the reputation of companies, even those abiding by the law.

It is therefore indicative that this year’s World Consumer Rights Day, which is commemorated annually on March 15, is themed ‘Tackling Misleading Environmental Claims on Plastic Products’.

The WCRD is an annual event aimed at raising global awareness about consumer rights and needs, promoting and protecting their basic rights, and protesting against market conduct undermines those rights.

Article 46 (1) of the Constitution outlines salient consumers rights, including the right to information necessary for consumers to gain full benefit from goods and services and the right to protection of their health and safety. Further, misleading representations by businesses regarding goods or services are expressly prohibited by the Competition Act No 12 of 2010.

In furtherance of this, the Competition Authority of Kenya has made several determinations against companies making false claims on their goods and services, including in the juices, edible oils, maize flour, and bread sub-sectors. Other aspects where businesses mislead typically mislead consumers is with respect to the grade, performance characteristics, quality, model, place of origin, availability of spare parts, and existence of warranties of goods and services.

As part of marking this year’s WCRD, the Authority is sensitising consumers and businesses about potential violations with regard to environmental claims on plastic packaging, with the objective of spurring positive behavior change.

One of the Authority’s major contributions to sustainable consumption is its decision to automate all its technical services in September 2020.  Our decision to go paperless has greatly reduced the e-waste generated by the Authority and reduced printer maintenance and stationery costs by about 80 per cent.

Additionally, the operational switch has resulted in significant savings for our stakeholders and ourselves, especially with regard to printing costs since we are no longer accept manual filings of cases. We appreciate that e-waste, like plastics, are a major environmental challenge which require our concerted intervention.

Manager, Consumer Protection. [email protected]