Food giants sued over plastic waste report devotion to recycling

The Coca-Cola Company, Danone North America and PepsiCo Inc. are among the targets in a lawsuit over plastic waste overwhelming the planet.

Josh Long, Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider

March 5, 2020

5 Min Read
Food giants sued over plastic waste report devotion to recycling

Some of the world’s largest food and beverage companies that have invested in initiatives to keep their packaging out of landfills and oceans face a lawsuit in California over mountains of plastic accumulating on the planet.

The Coca-Cola Company, Danone North America, Mars Inc., Nestlé USA Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. are among the targets in a complaint that alleges violations of the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act, negligence and public nuisance, among other failures.

The food, beverage and consumer goods companies named in the lawsuit have failed to incorporate more environmentally friendly materials in their products and participated “in a decades-long campaign to deflect blame for the plastic pollution crisis to consumers,” according to the Feb. 26 lawsuit, which was filed in San Mateo County Superior Court.

“Defendants’ campaigns spread the false narrative that the oceans, wildlife and environment would be healthy were it not for the consumers who failed to recycle their plastic,” Earth Island Institute, a public interest group in Berkeley, California, alleged in the complaint.

Eight of the companies named in the lawsuit are among the “top polluters” of plastic worldwide, based on a 2018 report by the global campaign Break Free from Plastic. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé alone accounted for 14% of the branded plastic pollution identified worldwide, the report asserted.

The 61-page lawsuit paints a disturbing picture of the plastic accumulating on earth. The marine world is home to 150 million metric tons of plastic, and scientists estimate between 8 and 20 million tons of plastic pass into the ocean every year, Earth Island Institute said in the complaint.

“At this rate,” the suit added, “plastic is set to outweigh fish by 2050.”

Earth Island Institute also referenced a study by the University of Newcastle, Australia, which suggested a person could be ingesting about 5 grams of plastic weekly, or “the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastics.”

The lawsuit casts blame for plastic waste on some of the same food and beverage giants that claim to be heavily invested in sustainability initiatives.

Gemma Hart, a spokesperson for Danone North America, declined to comment on the lawsuit but described her employer as “the world’s largest certified B Corp” with a strong commitment to making “a positive environmental and social impact on the communities where we live and work.”

Hart said Danone North America has a global goal of making all its packaging compostable, recyclable or reusable by 2025.

“In the U.S. today, approximately 75% of Danone North America’s packaging is currently recyclable and evian bottles and caps in North America are recyclable, with the aim of becoming a circular brand by 2025,” she said in an email.

In other words, evian aims “for zero plastic bottle waste” with a goal of making all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025,” according to its website.

“We are committed to increasing packaging options that are designed and labeled for circularity, and increasing the recycled content in our packaging,” Hart said. “To that end, we have numerous packaging developments taking place in North America. These include finding an alternative solution to petroleum-based plastic straws and incorporating recycled plastic into packaging.”

Recycling alone is not expected to eliminate the immense volume of plastic waste. For example, recycling comprises less than 10% of plastic produced annually, and U.S. recycling facilities are incapable of processing the immense volume of defendants’ products submitted annually to recycling facilities, Earth Island Institute claimed.

The lawsuit also cited a lack of demand for recycled plastic based on the availability of inexpensive raw materials to manufacture “virgin plastic” derived from oil and gas.

“In a very real sense, much of the plastic that is labeled ‘recyclable’ is false and misleading due to the inability of consumers to access facilities that will actually recycle defendants’ products,” the lawsuit alleged.

Patricia Ekaba, a spokesperson for Nestlé, said the company is reviewing the complaint’s allegations. However, Nestlé does not feel “lawsuits are an effective way to address the multi-faceted issue of plastic pollution,” she said.

“Such a universal challenge requires a well-orchestrated effort among the private sector, governments, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and citizens to focus on making tangible changes in the ways we live and do business,” Ekaba noted in an email. “Our vision is that none of our product packaging, including plastics, ends up in landfills nor in waterways, and that is why we have committed to making 100% of our packaging reusable or recyclable by 2025.”

She added: “To that end, we continue to reduce product packaging and incorporate more recyclable materials across our portfolio, while working with other stakeholders to ensure that the infrastructure needed to recycle matches material innovation. We are proud to be leaders in helping to shape a waste-free future.”

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo forwarded questions about the lawsuit to the American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents the nonalcoholic beverage industry. The beverage group also stated the plastics problem identified in the complaint is not a local issue.

“Plastic waste is a worldwide problem that demands thoughtful solutions,” William Dermody Jr., an ABA spokesperson, said via email. “America’s beverage companies are already taking action to address the issue by reducing our use of new plastic, investing to increase the collection of our bottles so they can be remade into new bottles as intended, and collaborating with legislators and third-party experts to achieve meaningful policy resolutions.” 

Maggie McKerr, a spokeswoman for Mondelēz International, another defendant in the lawsuit, said the company doesn’t comment on active litigation but treats the issue of environmental impacts very seriously.

“We have publicly committed to make 100% of our packaging recycle-ready by 2025, and we are at 93% today,” McKerr said in an email. “Our ultimate goal is to create zero net waste packaging and improve recycling and to do this we are investing in the innovation, infrastructure and education critical for success.”

She added, “We’re working hard to minimize and create new materials that can be recycled, provide recycling information on-pack and most importantly working with partners across industry, governments and NGOs to both incent consumer behavior and put the infrastructure in place to ensure packaging doesn’t end up in the environment.”

Other companies named in the lawsuit—Crystal Geyser Water Company, The Clorox Company, Colgate-Palmolive Company and The Proctor & Gamble Company—did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

About the Author(s)

Josh Long

Associate editorial director, Natural Products Insider, Informa Markets Health and Nutrition

Josh Long has been a journalist since 1997, holds a J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law, and was admitted to practice law in Colorado in 2008. Josh is the legal and regulatory editor with Informa's Health and Nutrition Network, specializing on matters related to Natural Products Insider. Ping him with story ideas at [email protected].

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