7th November 2023
Along with the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), we’re supporting the Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) in filing a legal complaint to the European Commission against three food and drink giants, over their use of misleading ‘100% recyclable’ and ‘100% recycled’ claims on plastic water bottles sold across Europe.
We’ve likely all seen slogans on plastic water bottles, claiming that the bottle is ‘100% recyclable’ or ‘100% recycled’. However, claims such as these, commonly found on plastic water bottles all over Europe, are either vague, factually incorrect, or not substantiated, and may suggest that bottles can be recycled in an infinite circular loop, which is simply not true.
Evidence shows that there is no such thing as truly circular plastic and that recycling – while less harmful than other methods of waste disposal – cannot solve the worsening crisis of plastic pollution. The process of recycling actually continuously degrades the properties of plastic, making ‘infinite’ recycling impossible. In fact, only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled, and production of new plastic is now expected to triple by 2060.
These claims about recycling also fail to account for all the parts of a plastic water bottle, such as lids and labels, which are not made from fully – if at all - recycled plastic and are much less likely to be effectively recycled.
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.
Rosa Pritchard, ClientEarth lawyer
Quite simply, we are producing too much plastic, and people and planet are drowning in it. Recycling is not a satisfactory solution, and companies shouldn’t be implying to consumers that plastic bottles are ever a sustainable choice.
We’ve supported BEUC in raising an ‘external alert’ to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network against Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone for suspected widespread infringement of consumer protection law.
An ‘external alert’ is an important tool that allows designated entities – such as BEUC – to submit complaints to the Consumer Protection Cooperation network and the European Commission, meaning they can submit evidence of business practices they suspect infringe consumer protection law directly to the enforcement authorities.
The external alert submitted here argues that the recycling statements on plastic water bottles, which are often reinforced by ‘green’ imagery and generic environmental catchphrases, may mislead consumers into viewing single-use bottles as a ‘sustainable’ choice, when this simply isn’t the case. The most sustainable way to consume water is using a refillable bottle and drinking tap water.
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 the planet. Where waste can be recycled, consumers should keep up their good work. Recycling is less harmful than other disposal methods, like incineration or landfill. But it's 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. 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 is less harmful than plastic being incinerated or going into landfill. And consumers should still recycle wherever possible.
But, the ‘recyclability’ of a plastic water bottle depends on lots of different external factors, such as local infrastructure when it enters the recycling system. In the EU, the recycling rate for plastic bottles is approximately 50%, with only 30% used to make new bottles. The remainder goes towards products like textiles, which are generally unrecyclable and more likely to end up in landfill, or an incinerator, causing pollution and contributing to climate change.
The combined effect of the claims on these bottles about recyclability risks persuading consumers across Europe that single-use plastic packaging does not harm the environment, while distracting attention from the urgent need to hugely reduce plastic production across the globe.
Recycling alone is not a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. Companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone need to reduce plastic production at the source, and stop using claims that could mislead consumers.
Now that the external alert has been filed, we will await a response from the European Commission.