Big drinks companies are misleading customers with claims that their plastic water bottles are fully recycled or recyclable, according to consumer groups who have issued a formal complaint to the European Commission.
The Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) said claims that water bottles from brands owned by Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestlé are “100% recyclable” or “100% recycled” are misleading because recycling rates are far lower in practice and bottles contain items that cannot be made from recycled material. The consumer rights group, which represents national groups across Europe, also said green imagery on bottles gave the “false idea” of environmental neutrality.
There is no guarantee that a plastic water bottle will be recycled, said Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of BEUC. “This greenwashing must stop.”
Drink bottles are among the most common forms of plastic polluting European beaches. In a year, the average European drinks around 118 litres of bottled water, according to the BEUC, 97% of which is thought to come in bottles made from plastic.
But the amount that gets made into new bottles depends only partly on factors that the company or the customer can control. Other factors include the systems used to collect, sort and recycle the bottles, as well as technical limits and rules around what materials can be used to package food and drink.
The BEUC has lodged a complaint with the European Commission over the phrase “100% recyclable” because a consumer cannot assume their water bottle will be recycled. Across the EU, about half of PET bottles are recycled, according to estimates from Zero Waste Europe.
The BEUC has also targeted the phrase “100% recycled” because bottle lids in the EU cannot be made of recycled materials. It also said that labels are rarely made from recycled material.
Last week, a report from campaign groups ClientEarth, ECOS and Zero Waste Europe found rates of plastic bottle recycling were improving, but that a fully circular system does not exist. “The idea of used bottles simply becoming new bottles over and over again may be appealing to companies and consumers alike, but it does not reflect the outcome for PET-based bottles in Europe,” the authors wrote.
The EU has cracked down on greenwashing as corporate sustainability claims have grown. In September, the European parliament and council agreed on new advertising rules banning generic sustainability claims like “climate neutral”, “natural” and “eco” unless backed up by proof of excellent environmental performance.
There is a lot of concern about plastic pollution and a lot of confusion about recycling, said Rosa Pritchard, a lawyer with ClientEarth, which supported the BEUC challenge. “Consumers are just tired of greenwashing, generally, and really want information they can count on.”
The BEUC has the power to issue external alerts – formal complaints about suspicious business practices – to the commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network. The commission cannot fine traders who are found to have breached advertising rules but national authorities from EU member states may choose to do so.