Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone face legal complaint for misleading ‘100 per cent’ recycling claims

Environmental and consumer rights organisations have filed a legal complaint against food and drink companies Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone for misleading claims of ‘100 per cent recycled’ and ‘100 per cent recyclable’ on plastic bottles sold across Europe.

Plastic bottlesThe claim has been raised by the EU consumer protection organisation Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) – supported by ClientEarth and the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS) – to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network against the companies due to a “suspected infringement of consumer protection law”.

The group contends that the claims displayed on bottles are incorrect and suggest to consumers that plastic bottles can be recycled in an infinite, circular loop.

Lawyers claim that these declarations, frequently accompanied by 'green' symbols and general environmental slogans, could potentially give consumers a mistaken impression that single-use bottles are an 'eco-friendly' option.

The group states that there is no such thing as truly circular plastic and that recycling – though less harmful than other disposal methods – cannot wholly alleviate the plastics crisis. They stress that the claims also frequently fail to account for parts of a bottle – such as lids or labels – that are not produced from recycled plastic and are less likely to be effectively recycled.

In support of the BEUC’s complaint, ClientEarth is encouraging beverage companies to stop making misleading claims that may deter consumers from making positive environmental choices – such as using a refillable bottle – and urges a move away from single-use plastic business models.

Rosa Pritchard, Plastics Lawyer at ClientEarth, commented: “The evidence is clear – plastic water bottles are simply not recycled again and again to become new bottles in Europe.

“A ‘100%’ recycling rate for bottles is technically not possible and, just because bottles are made with recycled plastic, does not mean they don’t harm people and planet. Of course, where waste can be recycled, consumers should keep up their good work. Recycling is less harmful than other disposal methods, such as incineration or landfill. But it is important companies don't portray recycling as a silver bullet to the plastic crisis - instead they need to focus efforts on reducing plastic at source.

“The reality is that 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.”

Recycling plastic bottles

The group highlights that in the EU, approximately 50 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled, with just 30 per cent being reused to make new bottles. The remainder is used towards products like textiles – which are often unrecyclable and are disposed of in landfills or incineration – causing pollution and contributing towards climate change.

This is accompanied by figures that reveal that just nine per cent of plastic ever produced has been recycled and that production of bottles is anticipated to triple by 2060.

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. The problem is that there’s no guarantee it will be fully recycled once it’s in the bin. Such claims however can be found on many water bottles sold across Europe. This greenwashing must stop."

Justin Wilkes, Executive Director General at ECOS added: “100 per cent recycled and 100 per cent recyclable plastic bottles are not technically feasible, and such labels can be misleading. We need reliable information on the level of recycled plastics in our bottles.

“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.”

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