ASA begins monitoring green disposal claims

January 4, 2024
Waste disposal bins

Back in 2022, we reported on how research by the ASA revealed that claims such as “carbon neutral” and “net zero” were causing public confusion. In November 2023, as part of the same mission, the ASA conducted further consumer research and an issue-led review of green disposal claims, which has led to updated guidance by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP). The primary objective of the new guidance is to support advertisers making green disposal claims which do not mislead consumers.

The ASA has said it will begin additional monitoring of ads in breach of established positions under the CAP and BCAP Codes from 1 January 2024, before starting to “proactively investigate potentially problematic claims” from 1 April 2024.

The issue with green disposal claims

Green disposal claims include use of terms such as “recyclable”, “recycling”, “biodegradable”, “compostable” and “plastic alternative”. The ASA research found that consumers view green claims in ads unquestioningly as they assume brands are prevented from making unverified environmental claims meaning that, generally, consumers have a simplistic understanding of “green” terminology and of how waste can be disposed.

Broadly, consumers were able to articulate what was meant by “recyclable” and “recycled” but struggled with their understanding of terms like “compostable” and “biodegradable.” Consumers' interpretation of claims changed when further information relating to those claims was shared, such as conditions as to how the product should composted, or the timeframe for biodegradation, or if toxins were released during a product’s biodegrading process.

There was a general consensus that clearer guidance and information were required in this area.

What does the new guidance say?

CAP and BCAP have now added new “Green disposal claims” guidance at section 3.1 of the document The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising, which provides guidance on how advertisers can better comply with CAP Code Rule 11 and BCAP Rule 9 (amongst others) on environmental claims, reducing the risk of advertisers misleading consumers.

The key recommendations are:

  • Green disposal claims, such as “recycled” or “recyclable”, should clarify which parts of the product/packaging the claim relates to. For example, absolute claims such as “100% recycled bottle” should not be used unless all aspects of the product, including the cap and label, are made from recycled materials.
  • If a disposal process differs from what the average consumer would expect, the claim should be qualified. For example, if a product claims to be “recyclable” without further qualification, this should refer to a process widely available to UK consumers. If a consumer needs to make a special trip to recycle all or part of the product, because infrastructure isn’t in place in the UK to support recycling the materials, then a claim that the product is “recyclable” may be misleading.
  • If a product which claims to be “compostable” can only be composted in industrial facilities, for example because effective degradation would not occur in a home composting environment, then such an unqualified claim is likely to be misleading.
  • If different claims relate to different parts of a product (e.g., if the outer packaging is compostable but the inner packaging is recyclable), it needs to be made clear in the ad making the claims to which parts of the product each claim relates to.
  • If the length of time a product takes to biodegrade/compost is long enough to be material to a consumer (an exact time period isn’t specified in the guidance and will depend on the product in question), then claims should make clear how long it will take for a product to biodegrade or compost.
  • If disposal, such as composting or biodegrading, results in harmful by-products then ads which make this clear are more likely to comply. For example, if a product emits methane during composting, a claim in an ad that the composting process does not have any negative impacts on the environment is likely to be misleading.
  • Claims that a product produces less waste than other products must take into account the entire product lifecycle and include qualifications if necessary. A claim of “70% less plastic” is likely to mislead if it only relates to a specific element of the packaging, and not the entire lifecycle including delivery and disposal.
  • Other parts of the CAP and BCAP Codes continue to apply. In particular, objective claims should be supported by evidence. For example, if claims are made around biodegradability then the advertiser should be able to substantiate these claims.

Next steps

The topics of ‘green claims’ and ‘green washing’ in UK advertising regulation certainly heated up in 2022 and 2023, and this trend looks set to continue into 2024. The ASA announced that, from 1 January 2024, the ASA will begin heightened monitoring and enforcement in relation to green claims in ads that are in breach of existing rules and that the ASA will “proactively investigate” potentially problematic claims from 1 April 2024.

The new guidelines clarify that it is quite difficult for advertisers to make broad green claims relating to product packaging in ads (without further qualifications) without being misleading. Advertisers should ensure that they are clear on what the new guidance entails and potentially undergo work to substantiate any claims they may wish to make, in order to avoid misleading consumers.

Andrew Wilson-BushellAndrew Wilson-Bushell
Andrew Wilson-Bushell
Andrew Wilson-Bushell
Réré OlutimehinRéré Olutimehin
Réré Olutimehin
Réré Olutimehin
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