The California-based environmental group, Earth Island Institute, have filed a lawsuit against 10 large companies, including Coke, Pepsi, and Nestlé, for their part in creating a plastic pollution “nuisance”, as well as spreading misinformation about the recyclability of their plastic packaging.
Last Wednesday, February 26, 2020, the suit was filed in San Mateo county superior court, asking that the companies pay to rectify the damage their plastic pollution has caused to the world and refrain from marketing products as recyclable, when by and large they do not end up actually being recycled at recycling facilities, due to the sheer volume and cost, as well as sorting capabilities of local facilities.
“This is the first of what I believe will be a wave of lawsuits seeking to hold the plastics industry accountable for the unprecedented mess in our oceans,” Josh Floum, Earth Island Institute’s board president, said in a statement.
Around 150 million metric tonnes of plastic currently reside in the ocean, with between 8 and 20 million extra tonnes of plastic added each year to this figure, according to research estimates. At this rate, plastic is set to outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. In the plaintiff's suit, they argue that plastic pollution has a detrimental impact on the environment and its inhabitants.
From beach cleanups conducted as part of an international audit last year, single-use plastic packaging was gathered by over 72,000 volunteers across 51 countries and categorized by brand. It was found that the majority of oceanic plastic pollution can be traced back to a handful of major companies. The lawsuit names 10 of the most abundant brands in this search: Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsi, Mondel?z International, Mars, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Crystal Geyser, and Danone.
“The products that we are targeting in our lawsuit are contained in plastic packaging that is designed to be used for a short period of time, sometimes just a few minutes,” Earth Island’s General Counsel Sumona Majumdar said. “And yet, this packaging pollutes our bodies from one generation to the next, and our planet for centuries.”
This is not the only charge the environmental group are bringing forward to the companies; Earth Island also believes that consumers are being misled by them. Consumers are told by these companies that their plastic is recyclable, therefore it is expected that if the item is placed in a recycling bin (or other facilities such as this), then the situation is taken care of. However, much of the time, this isn’t the case.
Previous studies have suggested that less than 10 percent of primary plastic produced is recycled, but the recent collapse of the recycling market could see this number decrease further. The suit argues that companies have continued to generate new “virgin plastic”, the production of which has increased 200-fold since 1950, due to its cheapness.
“The Coca-Cola Company and our other defendants churn out millions of tons of plastic packaging each year and want us to believe that it is all being recycled,” Majumdar said. “It’s a misinformation campaign, similar to those used by Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and Big Pharma. Now is the time to hold Big Plastic similarly accountable.”
All of this does not mean to dissuade customers from recycling, executive director of Earth Island Institute David Phillips, told the Guardian, rather the lawsuit is about making companies take responsibility for the waste from their products.
In response to the lawsuit, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola and Pepsi, amongst others, told IFLScience: “Plastic waste is a worldwide problem that demands thoughtful solutions. 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.”
Mondel?z International, one of the companies being sued by Earth Island Institute, told IFLScience that they don't comment on active litigation. However, they emphasized their commitment to making 100 percent of their packaging recycle-ready by 2025, in order to reach their ultimate goal of creating zero net waste packaging.
A spokesperson continued: "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."
We reached out to the other companies involved in the lawsuit (Nestlé, Mars, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Crystal Geyser, and Danone), and haven't heard back by the time of publication.