Consumer and environmental groups have filed a formal complaint to the European Commission that beverage companies Coca-Cola, Danone, and Nestlé have falsely claimed their plastic water bottles are 100% recycled or recyclable.
The Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), or the European Consumer Organization, and member organizations from 13 countries filed the complaint on Nov. 7, 2023. The official complaint comes after the findings of a report by the BEUC, ClientEarth, and Environmental Coalition on Standards found that commercial statements by the beverage companies regarding recyclability do not comply with EU rules on unfair commercial statements.
“Using ‘100% recycled-recyclable’ claims or displaying nature images and green visuals that insinuate that plastic is environmentally friendly is misleading consumers,” Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of BEUC, said. “Such claims however can be found on many water bottles sold across Europe. The problem is that there’s no guarantee it will be fully recycled once it’s in the bin. This greenwashing must stop.”
The Complaint Outlines False Sustainability Claims
The BEUC specifically outlined three areas where the claims are false – 100% recyclable, 100% recycled, and the use of green imagery on packaging.
The organization said used plastic bottles are recycled at a 55% rate in Europe and have just a 30% chance of becoming a bottle again. The complaint also said that promoting a bottle that is 100% recycled is a false claim because parts of the packaging, including lids and labels, cannot be recycled or rarely are.
As for green imagery, it implies that the bottles “prompt the false idea of environmental neutrality, endless plastic circularity and may even give the impression that the bottles would have a positive impact on the environment,” according to the BEUC.
The groups are calling on the European Commission and consumer protection authorities to launch an investigation into potential greenwashing by the companies.
All three companies said in statements that they are committed to improving the recyclability of their products and packaging. Coca-Cola and Nestlé also said they aim to be clear in their communication and marketing.
“We only communicate messages on our packaging that can be substantiated, with any relevant qualifications clearly displayed to enable consumers to make informed choices,” Coca-Cola said in a statement. “Some of our packaging carries messages to drive recycling awareness, including whether our packages are recyclable and if they are made from recycled content.”
Greenwashing Concerns Increase with Continued Focus on Sustainable Practices
Greenwashing has been a growing concern by governments and consumer groups with the increase in sustainability programs and strategies throughout the business world.
Nike and Delta Air Lines are two large companies that have faced lawsuits over their sustainability claims this year. In October 2022, Danone Waters of America also faced a lawsuit in the United States over information on its Evian Natural Spring Water labels implying the product is carbon neutral.
This year the EU has pledged to ban greenwashing.
Some of the proposed rules include eliminating generic environmental and sustainability statements; claims of emissions offsetting or that a product has a neutral, reduced, or positive impact on the environment; and sustainability labels that have not been certified or approved by public authorities.
If the European Commission decides to act on the complaint by the BEUC it could organize a response by national consumer agencies. If that happpens, those agencies could require the companies to correct their packaging and marketing or levy fines.