plastic bottles waste

Consumer rights group BEUC argues recyclability claims can mislead consumers ‘into viewing single-use plastic bottles as a sustainable choice’

Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone are facing formal complaints of alleged greenwashing over the recyclability of their plastic water bottles.

Green claims made by the drinks giants that their plastic water bottles are 100% recycled or recyclable are misleading to consumers, according to consumer rights group The Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), which filed a complaint with the European Commission on Tuesday.

The BEUC, which represents several national groups across Europe, claims bottles from brands owned by those three companies – including Evian, Glacéau Smartwater and San Pellegrino – contain items that cannot be made from recycled materials.

It also said that claims of “100% recyclability” fail to take into consideration that recycling rates in Europe are much lower in reality.

BEUC’s lawyers argue that those claims, along with the way plastic bottles are marketed with green imagery, mean “consumers may be misled into viewing single-use plastic bottles as a sustainable choice”.

The consumer rights group raised an external alert to the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network against all three companies for “suspected widespread infringement of consumer protection law”.

In similar ways to the ASA, the BEUC has the power to issue formal complaints about suspicious business practices. However, it will be down to the authorities in each individual EU member country to fine companies found of breaching advertising rules.

Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of BEUC, said companies “must stop” making misleading environmental claims that cannot be founded.

“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.”

According to the BEUC, the average European drinks about 118 litres of bottled water per year, with most of the packaging being plastic.

However, it is difficult to ascertain the amount of a plastic in a bottle that will end up getting used for new bottles because recycling systems vary across Europe, as does regulation around what materials can be reused for industrial food and drink packaging.

According to the British Plastics Federation, around 75% of PET drinks bottles are recycled. In the EU, the recycling rate for plastic bottles is approximately 50%, with only around 30% used to make new bottles, as per Zero Waste Europe data.

The BEUC also said that claiming a plastic bottle is “100% recycled” was considered greenwashing because some parts of the bottles – such as the lids and labels – cannot be made of recycled materials in the EU.

Coca-Cola’s bottling company CCEP said in response to the complaint: “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.”

CCEP said it supported “well-designed” deposit return schemes across Europe. In the UK, plans for a DRS were recently delayed after a lack of support from industry.

A Danone spokesperson said: “At Danone, we strongly believe in the circularity of packaging – and will continue to invest and lead the campaign for better collection and recycling infrastructure alongside our 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).”

ClientEarth, one of the groups supporting the BEUC’s complaint, is calling for companies to “stop using misleading claims that may deter consumers from making good environmental choices”, such as using refillable water bottles.

“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,” claimed Rosa Pritchard, Plastics Lawyer at ClientEarth.

“Of course, where waste can be recycled, consumers should keep up their good work. 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.”

Natural Mineral Waters Europe and UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe said in a joint statement in response to the complaint: “The beverage sector is a pioneer in packaging circularity and places great importance on clear and transparent communication towards the consumer.

“The industry follows recognised robust frameworks to design its PET bottles for recycling and guidance on claims to consumers.”

Nestlé backed the above statement.