Beverage giants in hot water over plastic bottle recycling claims

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Plastic bottles' claims to be '100% recycled' and '100% recyclable' are misleading, according to BEUC. Image Source: Yagi Studio/Getty Images
Plastic bottles' claims to be '100% recycled' and '100% recyclable' are misleading, according to BEUC. Image Source: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

Related tags single use plastic Recycling Nestlé Danone Coca Cola

Environmental and consumer rights organisations are taking legal action against Nestlé, Danone, and The Coca-Cola Company, over recyclable claims made about their plastic bottles. They have raised an external alert to both the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network, alleging the FMCGs' ‘100% recyclable’ or ‘100% recycled’ claims for plastic bottles are misleading.

The external alert, raised by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and supported by ClientEarth and ECOS (Environmental Coalition on Standards), addresses the three companies’ suspected infringement of consumer protection law in regards to claims about the recyclability of plastic bottles.

Plastic bottles sold across Europe often claim to be ‘100% recyclable’ or ‘100% recycled’, statements which, these organisations suggest, are misleading.

An external alert allows designated entities such as BEUC to submit complaints to both the Consumer Protection Cooperation network and the European Commission, alongside evidence of business practices they suspect infringe on consumer protection law.

The case against ‘100% recyclable’ and ‘100% recycled’

The external alert was raised because the organisations believe claims on plastic bottles that they are either ‘100% recyclable’ or ‘100% recycled’ are misleading. This, alongside green imagery and environmental catchphrases, they suggest, creates a false impression that the products are sustainable.

ClientEarth, in support of BEUC, is calling for companies to cease making misleading claims that could stop consumers making sustainable choices (such as, for example, using a refillable water bottle).

Plastic bottles advertised as ‘100% recycled’ or ’100% recyclable’ may be seen as 'sustainable' - this is far from being the case​,” Alexandre Baird, Senior Legal Officer at BEUC, told FoodNavigator.

According to BEUC’s report on the matter, such claims contravene the Directive 2005/29/EC, otherwise known as the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), specifically Article 6, which prohibits misleading actions, Article 7, which prohibits misleading omissions, Article 5(2), which prohibits practices ‘contrary to the requirements of professional diligence if they are likely to materially distort the economic behaviour of the average consumer,’ and Article 12, which states that those making environmental claims must be able to substantiate them with evidence.

The process of recycling, Baird told us, is not sustainable as it can only be done a limited number of times for one item. “All single-use packaging is seriously detrimental to the environment.  These claims give a misleading impression about how plastic recycling works. Plastic bottles cannot - and do not - become plastic bottles over and over again through recycling.

Often, only one component of a beverage bottle is made of 100% recycled plastic – its body – and, even then, in some cases, virgin plastics may have been added to the product during the manufacturing process. The ‘recyclability’ of a bottle also depends on many factors which are out of the control of plastic bottles producers, including the infrastructure in place where the bottle enters the recycling system – not just on the bottle itself.​” Parts of the bottle that cannot be recycled, such as the lid, he told us, will either end up in landfills or be incinerated.

This, according to Baird, is not just factually wrong regarding the specifics of what is and isn’t recycled and recyclable, but misleading in how it represents the effects of recycling in general.

These claims fall under the umbrella of greenwashing, and dangerously position recycling as a magic solution to the plastics overproduction​,” he told us.

They suggest that the practice of recycling ‘neutralises’ the impact of plastic pollution. In reality, recycling is simply a less harmful alternative and certainly does not mean that the product has a positive, or even neutral, environmental impact. The ‘closed loop’ system – one in which a bottle simply becomes a new bottle through recycling - that many of us imagine recycling to be is a myth.​”

Furthermore, the recyclability of plastic bottles are highly context-dependent and do not just rely on the recyclability of the bottle itself but the local infrastructure as well. For example, the EU’s recycling rate for plastic bottles is around 50%, according to a report by Zero Waste Europe, and much of this recycled plastic goes into products such as textiles, which is, most of the time, unrecyclable, and when incinerated contributes to climate change.

While greenwashing is a ‘growing practice’, according to Baird, and goes across many industries, plastic bottles are worth singling out.

We are targeting bottled water specifically as greenwashing is particularly egregious on these products and the claims are widespread. We know that consumers are influenced by this type of messaging, and they have a right to accurate information​.”

Recycling plastic bottles, according to Baird, can only be done a number of times, not indefinitely. Image Source: Floortje/Getty Images

Industry response

Industry has responded to the external alert, with trade bodies Natural Mineral Waters Europe and UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe making joint statement.

The beverage sector is a pioneer in packaging circularity and places great importance on clear and transparent communication towards the consumer​,” they said. “The industry follows recognised robust frameworks to design its PET bottles for recycling and guidance on claims to consumers. Still, further improvements can be made to achieve EU-harmonised rules through coming regulations, such as the EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) and Green Claims Directive, and to have the best enablers in place to close the loop and reach the full potential of circular packaging​.”

The three companies also made individual statements. A spokesperson for Danone said the company strongly believes in the circularity of packaging and will continue to invest and lead the campaign for better collecting and recycling infrastructure alongside its partners. "We have also made real progress on our journey to reducing single use plastic and virgin plastic use in parallel (-10% in absolute since 2018)​.”

From Nestlé's perspective, a company spokesperson said the business works hard to reduce the amount of plastic packaging it uses; to lead investments and support packaging circularity alongside partners, and to communicate clearly with consumers who want to make informed choices. said “Nestlé has reduced its amount of virgin plastic packaging by 10.5% since 2018, and we are on track to get to one-third less virgin plastic by the end of 2025​.”

A spokesperson for Coca-Cola Great Britain added that the company cares about the impact of every drink it sells and is committed to growing its business in the right way. “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. We also aim to have 25% of all our volume sold globally in refillable/returnable glass or plastic bottles, or in refillable containers used when consuming from dispensed solutions.

We're making progress to help eliminate waste, and we know more must be done. We will continue to invest to advance our World Without Waste packaging goals​.”

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