Greenwashing PET bottles: 100% recyclable claims “misleading” and “unachievable,” says ClientEarth report
02 Nov 2023 — The common claims of “100% recyclable” or “100% recycled” made on PET beverage bottles are usually misleading or false, according to recent research by ClientEarth, ECOS (Environmental Coalition on Standards), Eunomia Research & Consulting and Zero Waste Europe.
The report shows evidence that for most plastic bottles, recyclability and PCR content claims are only partially true, and scientific methodologies like LCAs are usually flawed. The researchers warn bottle industry players of potential greenwashing litigation, for which there is increasing legislation.
Caps, labels, adhesives, inks and other components of a beverage bottle are typically not recycled or recyclable. Even with the PET body alone, a 100% collection and sortation rate would need to exist for these claims to be true.
Nusa Urbancic, co-founder and CEO of Changing Markets Foundation (CMF), tells Packaging Insights she is not surprised by the findings. “We have been observing ‘100% recyclable’ as well as ‘100% from recycled plastic’ claims on plastic bottles and other beverage packaging, like cans, for a long time.”
“The ocean is probably full of ‘100% recyclable’ bottles, which have not been collected and recycled because there were no incentives to do so,” she says.
“Although we see now that the situation is slowly improving, as more and more countries in Europe introduce DRS, it is still misleading for companies to put these claims to their products, especially as many of these same companies were found to be lobbying against policies that would increase collection and recycling rates, such as DRS.”
Many parts of PET bottles are not recyclable, says the report.Future litigation?
Innova Market Insights pegged “Green but Clean” as a top trend for 2023, noting that increasingly stringent laws against false advertising and marketing regarding environmental sustainability claims are being imposed globally.
“Legislators should scrutinize these claims in the light of the new and upcoming legislation on green claims and ensure that these claims are accurate and consistent,” says Urbancic.
“The ramifications of that for the beverage industry could be that this new evidence opens them up to litigation on misleading green claims. Policymakers around the world are starting to take greenwashing much more seriously and such product claims are in the firing line.”
To avoid litigation and back up claims as far as possible, the industry should be supporting infrastructure such as DRS or mandatory reuse wherever possible, asserts Urbancic.
Packaging Insights has reached out to UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe for comment.
Recently, we spoke to UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe’s director general, Nicholas Hodac, who said that beverage bottlers have built the most effective DRS in Europe but are often priced out of the recycled PET (rPET) market, which disrupts the market’s circularity.
Other plastic industry associations dismiss this idea as an attempt at monopolizing the recyclate market.
There are few LCAs that assess the environmental impacts of PET-based bottles made with 100% recycled PET, as this only recently became technically possible, explains the report.
However, companies are increasingly turning to LCAs as a method of proving 100% recycled PET bottle claims.
Many LCAs are not made publicly available for review, which is an obstacle to independent verification, but even of those that are, recent examples show that LCA methodologies are being manipulated in favor of the companies using them.
For example, a study conducted by IFEU on behalf of MEG Weißenfels, a manufacturer of bottles for Lidl in Germany, found that its disposable rPET bottle has a lower carbon footprint than reusable or glass alternatives.
The IFEU study was conducted within the framework of the German deposit system, which boasts an impressive 98.5% return rate. But, the study needs more transparency on how a 98.5% collection rate translates into bottles with 100% recycled content.
Detailed discussions on the losses within the recycling system, which reduce the available material for bottle integration, are “conspicuously absent,” according to the report.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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