Press release: 7 November 2023
Lawyers file complaint against Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone for misleading ‘100%’ recycling claims
- External alert targets use of misleading statements and imagery on plastic water bottles.
- Claim filed to the European Commission argues that common ‘100%’ recycling claims may mislead consumers into viewing single-use plastic bottles as ‘sustainable’.
- Bottles bearing '100% recycled’ are never entirely from recycled plastic in the EU.
- Lawyers argue that recycling can never address the scale of the plastic pollution crisis.
Environmental and consumer rights organisations have filed a legal complaint against food and drink giants Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone for the use of misleading ‘100%’ recycled’ and ‘100% recyclable’ claims on plastic water bottles sold across Europe.
EU consumer protection organisation BEUC (Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs), supported by ClientEarth and ECOS (Environmental Coalition on Standards) has raised an external alert to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network against the companies for suspected widespread infringement of consumer protection law.
The claims commonly found on plastic water bottles are often factually incorrect, and the group argues that they suggest that bottles can simply be recycled in an infinite, circular loop. Lawyers say these statements, often reinforced by ‘green’ imagery and generic environmental catchphrases, may mislead consumers into viewing single-use bottles as a ‘sustainable’ choice.
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 escalating plastics crisis. The process continuously degrades the properties of plastic, making ‘infinite’ recycling impossible. In fact, only nine percent of plastic ever made has been recycled – and production is now expected to triple by 2060.
In its support of BEUC’s complaint, ClientEarth is calling for companies to cease using misleading claims that may deter consumers from making good environmental choices – such as using a refillable water bottle – and encourage food and drink giants to move away from the harmful single-use plastic business model and ‘deplastify’.
Rosa Pritchard, Plastics Lawyer at ClientEarth said: “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 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.”
The ‘recyclability’ of a plastic water bottle is determined by local infrastructure when it enters the recycling system, not just the bottle itself. In the EU, the recycling rate for plastic bottles is approximately 50%, with only around 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.
These claims also fail to account for the parts of a plastic water bottle, such as lids and labels, which are not made from recycled plastic and are less likely to be effectively recycled, and the potential addition of virgin content during manufacturing.
The combined effect of these claims risks persuading consumers across Europe that single-use packaging does not harm the environment, distracting attention from the urgent need to reduce plastic production across the globe.
Ursula Pachl, Deputy Director General of BEUC, commented:
“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 at Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS) said: “100% recycled” and “100% 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.”
Notes to editors:
European consumer protection organisation BEUC (Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs) has filed an external alert to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network. The CPC network is a large group of EU Member State consumer protection authorities.
BEUC is a ‘designated body’ under CPC regulation, and are therefore authorised to issue an alert to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network. ClientEarth, who is not a designated body, has supported BEUC, to bring this complaint.
BEUC has filed the alert against multiple EU brands owned by by Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, Nestlé S.A and Danone S.A, for widespread infringement of EU consumer protection law within the meaning of EU regulation 2017/2394 (the Consumer Protection Cooperation Regulation).
Plastic bottles are among the most commonly found items of plastic waste. They are also one of the most frequently purchased items in European supermarkets. In fact, Europe accounted for $66 billion in global revenue for bottled water in 2021 alone.
You can read more about the recyclability of plastic water bottles across Europe in a new report published by ClientEarth, ECOS, Zero Waste Europe and Eunomia here.
An ‘External Alert’ is an important tool to step up the enforcement of consumer protection rules across Europe. It allows designated entities – such as BEUC – to submit complaints to the Consumer Protection Cooperation network and the European Commission.
The structure of an External Alert means that designated bodies can submit evidence on suspicious business practices directly to the enforcement authorities.
In March 2020, the European Commission appointed BEUC as a designated body for the issue of external alerts – and 22 of its national member organisations have also been granted permission to raise these types of complaints at a country level.
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) acts as the umbrella group in Brussels for 45 independent national consumer organisations. Our main role is to represent them to the European institutions and defend the interests of European consumers.
About ECOS – Environmental Coalition on Standards
ECOS is an international NGO with a network of members and experts advocating for environmentally friendly technical standards, policies and laws. We ensure the environmental voice is heard when they are developed and drive change by providing expertise to policymakers and industry players, leading to the implementation of strong environmental principles.