New York Attorney General Sues PepsiCo for Plastic Pollution Contributions

Duck wades in waste pollution along the Buffalo River

(Credit: New York Office of the Attorney General)

by | Nov 16, 2023

New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo after research indicated that their single-use plastic products cause high levels of pollution along the Buffalo River, endangering the environment and human health.

The lawsuit claims that PepsiCo has contributed to water contamination and harming wildlife while making misleading claims toward consumers. Specifically, PepsiCo is said to have failed to warn customers about the health and environmental risks of its single-use packaging and has allegedly misled consumers about its efforts to combat plastic pollution.

Studies Find PepsiCo Products a Main Source of Plastic Pollution in Region

The suit is grounded in various studies done to examine plastic pollution in New York state, which found Pepsi to be the largest contributor to single-use plastic pollution in the Buffalo region.

In 2022, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) surveyed waste collected at 13 sites along the Buffalo River, finding that the majority, or about 17%, of plastic trash collected was from PepsiCo single-use plastic packaging. The company’s products were three times more abundant than the next highest contributor of plastic waste.

Further, from 2013 to 2022, Buffalo Water Keeper volunteers reported that 78% of all waste collected along the Buffalo River watershed was plastic. PepsiCo has also been found to be either the number one or number two producer of branded plastic trash collected across the country.

The OAG cites the many dangers associated with microplastics as another reason for the lawsuit — the company’s plastics have been found in analyses of microplastics from the Buffalo River and in the New York drinking water supply. Microplastics are small plastic pieces made when plastic pollution breaks down, and they are linked to numerous threats to human and environmental health.

Lawsuit Calls for Transparency, Reduction of Plastic Packaging

The OAG claims the company is responsible for a “public nuisance” to the community of Buffalo and is not taking adequate measures to mitigate its impact. Through the lawsuit, the OAG asks the court to require PepsiCo to stop contributing to such a presence in the Buffalo region, to remediate current contamination, and to take measures to reduce the amount of its plastic packaging entering the Buffalo River.

The company has also been asked to provide adequate warning labels on any single-use plastics sold in the Buffalo region to inform customers of potential damages caused by plastic pollution.

“Today, we are telling PepsiCo a simple message: Western New York is not a dumping ground,” said Jon D. Rivera, New York state representative. “We have made great strides in protecting and cleaning up local waterways, and we’re moving on from our industrial past to a new, blue economy so that residents can enjoy places like the Buffalo River for generations to come. However, we can’t remediate the environment without acknowledging the negligence of large corporations that continue to place profits above people. PepsiCo must play a role in environmental cleanup due to the products they create, which contribute to plastic pollution, CO2 emissions, and single-use waste.”

In 2022, PepsiCo admitted that its use of virgin plastic in its packaging had increased by 11% despite claims that it was making progress towards reducing this amount. The company maintains a target of reducing 35% of its virgin plastic content for beverages by 2025.

PepsiCo said in a statement that it is “a complex issue that requires involvement from a variety of stakeholders, including businesses, municipalities, waste-reduction providers, community leaders, and consumers.” The company said they take the process seriously and have been working with groups to improve plastic recycling.

“PepsiCo is serious about plastic reduction and effective recycling, and has been transparent in our journey to reduce use of plastic and accelerate new packaging innovation,” the company said in the statement. “PepsiCo has been working in New York to address the needs of communities, including advocating for New York bottle bill improvements and extended producer responsibility bills. We have worked effectively with a variety of communities across the country and remain committed to doing so.”

Increasing Push to Reduce Plastic Pollution

New York State is one of many parties pointing to the major damages found to be caused by plastic waste. Consumer and environmental groups have recently filed a formal complaint against Coca-Cola, Danone, and Nestle for false claims that their plastic water bottles are 100% recycled or recyclable. In September, Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey signed an executive order to ban state agencies from buying single-use plastic bottles.

World organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, have called for a global ban on high-risk and unnecessary plastics, and the UN is currently developing a Plastic Treaty to create a worldwide, legally binding agreement to reduce plastic pollution.

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