UK Watchdog to Crack Down on Biodegradable and Recyclable Claims

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media. The ASA recently announced key findings from its consumer research and issue-led review on green disposal claims (i.e., ‘recyclable’/’recycled’, ‘biodegradable’, ’compostable’ and “plastic alternative” claims). To accompany this, CAP and BCAP have updated their Advertising Guidance: The environment: misleading claims and social responsibility in advertising to include, in section 3.1, guidance on the use of green disposal claims.

The updated guidance reflects key findings from the ASA research, and principles established by ASA rulings. It seeks to support advertisers in making green disposal claims which do not mislead, and sets out factors advertisers should take into account, to improve the likelihood of their ads complying with the Advertising Codes.

It clarifies that green disposal claims must be substantiated, and provides guidance on the types of information which, if included, would mean that these claims are less likely to mislead, including:

  • Which parts of a product the claim relates to.
  • Information about the disposal process, if that is likely to differ from the average consumer’s expectations.
  • Information about how long it takes for a product to fully biodegrade or compost, if that is likely to differ from the average consumer’s expectations.
  • Information about harmful by-products which are produced during the disposal process.

The ASA’s announcement states that, from January 2024, it will begin additional monitoring and carry out enforcement work to tackle ads in breach of established positions already set down in rulings, such as “100% recyclable” claims.  After a period of grace, from 1 April 2024, the ASA will proactively investigate potentially problematic claims with a particular focus being given to claims that omit end of use green disposal information where such information is material to the effective and responsible disposal of the item, claims that suggest a product has multiple green disposal options where that is misleading, and claims where substantiation to back up green disposal claims is not present.

Elf Bar example

The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has banned an advertising campaign for single-use vapes on the grounds that it misled viewers over product recyclability. The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has banned an advertising campaign for single-use vapes on the grounds that it misled viewers over product recyclability.

Elf Bar was ordered by the ASA to ensure that it removes and does not repeat an advertisement first seen on buses and digital billboards in London this summer. The Agency made this ruling following ten complaints, including one from campaign group AdFree Cities. The offending advert carried images of a new line of single-use e-cigarettes along with the taglines “Green Awareness” and “Recycling for a Greener Future”. A recycling symbol was also used.

Complaints about the advert highlighted that there are currently only limited recycling options for single-use vapes in the UK. They are not collected from households and while some brands run take-back schemes, vape sales are far outpacing the growth of take-back schemes and recycling capacity.

Elf Bar stated that its intention was to raise awareness that vapes can be recycled if the right options are chosen. The company argued that viewers would not interpret the advertisements as an offer of a new recycling service, nor would they understand it as an absolute claim about the overall environmental impact of its products. Elf Bar further stated that the “Green Awareness” and “Recycling for a Greener Future” taglines had been applied to its general work on recycling, including the addition of recycling bins to more than 70 British vape shops since the start of October 2023. Elf Bar is aiming to scale this scheme into a larger, closed-loop recycling system by 2025.

The ASA ruled that, in the absence of any information on how Elf Bars could be recycled, most shoppers would see the advert and assume they could recycle them easily – including at home. The Agency pointed to previous research from Material Focus stating that 70% of vape users throw their devices away as they are unsure of routes to recycling. Overall, the ASA’s opinion is that the advert gave an “inaccurate impression that the products were fully recyclable”.

The ruling on the Elf Bar ads was provided along with a general set of findings from the ASA’s consumer research into claims relating to product recyclability. Claims relating to the kind of materials which products and packaging contained, including recycled and biodegradable content, were also in the scope of this research.


British consumers believe they are making green choices while disposing of waste when they are often not, according to the new report. The study, from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), based on extensive interviews with consumers, found widespread misunderstandings around common terms such as “biodegradable”, “compostable” and “recyclable”, leaving participants angry when they discovered what they meant.

According to the ASA, households in the UK take pride in recycling and food-waste management, and hope to play their part in preventing the destruction of nature by putting rubbish into correct bins or buying products with green packaging. However, some participants in the new research believed the labelling meant that packaging would disappear entirely or decompose. Some of those surveyed were surprised to learn that “biodegradable” packaging has an unlimited timeframe to break down and could produce toxins.

Many “compostable” products need to be taken to a specialist waste centre and would not break down in a household compost bin, although many of those surveyed believed the products could be composted at home.

Miles Lockwood, director of complaints and investigations at the ASA, said the regulator would be cracking down on the use of the terms in adverts as part of its action on greenwashing. “Consumers were telling us that they were proud of what they were doing on the environment. They have green bins, they were separating things out, they were doing their bit for the environment and it made them feel good.

“When we began to explain the differences between recycling in the home or recycling in a centre, it created a sense of depression or disappointment at what is happening,” said Lockwood. “People assume because it’s ‘compostable’, they can put it into their garden compost bin. When you explain that you can’t and it’s not going to compost without being taken to a council facility, it generated a really negative response,” he said.

“With the issue of biodegradability, there is no definition of what makes something biodegradable. It can take years and sometimes degrade into microplastics – that created a real sense of disappointment and anger. Businesses need to work a lot harder to explain the difference. “Previous studies have shown that most plastics marketed as “home compostable” do not work, with as many as 60% failing to disintegrate after six months. Pollution is a leading driver of biodiversity loss and waste is a significant source of methane emissions.

In recent years, the ASA has banned ads that it felt misled consumers on the climate crisis and the destruction of nature. In 2022, the ASA banned a Lipton Ice Tea advert for giving the impression that the bottle was made from entirely recycled materials when the cap and label were not. It has previously upheld complaints about baby wipes and dog poo bags over their biodegradability claims, and promised to ban claims of “carbon neutrality” using offsets, amid concerns that many offsets have no benefit to the climate.

The ASA research also showed how participants routinely believed environmental claims in advertising, assuming that brands would not be able to make claims without verification or evidence, particularly when a company made a claim using statistics. Those surveyed said they wanted clear information about what was in products, where it would be disposed, how long that would take and what the outcome of the disposal would be.

The report comes against a backdrop of tighter restrictions on green claims in advertising. Last week, the ASA banned two Toyota adverts for condoning driving that disregards its environmental impact, stating that the SUV ads had been created without “a sense of responsibility to society”. “Business are trying to get it right but they often make really silly mistakes. Half the time we see companies who are a bit too enthusiastic, who are a bit too broad brush and a bit vague, who don’t walk consumers through a journey with them. They make assumptions about what consumers know,” said Lockwood.

“We have been focusing a lot on cases around oil and gas, airlines and banks and so on. We are calling time in those sectors on companies making ‘green halo claims’, where they just focus on the green bits of what they do and ignore the rest,” he said.

Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestle

Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestle have been accused of greenwashing over claims about their plastic bottles being “100% recycled”. The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), backed by environmental groups Client Earth and Environmental Coalition on Standards (Ecos), has issued a legal complaint to the European Commission. It focusses on the firms’ claims that the single-use, plastic water bottles they supply are either 100% recycled or 100% recyclable bottles. But BEUC argues that this is misleading as the bottles are never made entirely of recycled materials.

It said the lids cannot be made from recycled materials under EU law, labels are rarely made from recycled material and adding non-recycled plastic to the body is common practice. The organisation added that the use of green imagery or branding for many water bottles across Europe is also misleading to consumers. It also said the term “100% recyclable” is ambiguous as since recyclability depends on many factors like available infrastructure to collect material; the effectiveness of the sorting process; or appropriate recycling processes.

BEUC filed the complaint to the Commission as well as the network of consumer protection authorities (CPC), calling on them to launch an investigation. Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of BEUC, said: “Be it about buying new clothes, opening a bank account or buying water bottles, consumers increasingly want to make the most sustainable choice and seek reliable information to do so. “However, they are bombarded with incorrect and deceptive claims, so they do not know which claim or label to trust. Using “100% recycled/recyclable” claims or displaying nature images and green visuals that insinuate that plastic is environmentally friendly is misleading consumers.”

“Such claims, however, can be found on many water bottles sold across Europe. The problem is that there’s no guarantee it will be fully recycled once it’s in the bin. This greenwashing must stop.” Justin Wilkes, executive director of Ecos, said: “Policymakers must set clear rules on recycled content that are implemented by standardised, reliable methodologies, putting an end to the Wild West of green claims.”

Rosa Pritchard, plastics Lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “The reality is single-use plastic is neither circular nor sustainable. Recycling can never catch up with the sheer volume of plastic produced on our planet. Companies are in a unique position to change how we consume but currently these claims – which we consider to be misleading – are making it hard for consumers to make good environmental choices.”

A spokesperson at Coca-Cola Great Britain said: “We’re working to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we use, and we’re investing to collect and recycle the equivalent of the packaging we use. We only communicate messages on our packaging that can be substantiated, with any relevant qualifications clearly displayed to enable consumers to make informed choices. Some of our packaging carries messages to drive recycling awareness, including whether our packages are recyclable and if they are made from recycled content.”

“We have an ambitious goal to collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one we sell by 2030, and we support well-designed deposit return schemes across Europe which we know can help us get our packaging back.” A spokesperson for Danone said: “At Danone, we strongly believe in the circularity of packaging and will continue to invest and lead the campaign for better collection and recycling infrastructure alongside our partners.