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New York Attorney General sues PepsiCo over plastic pollution, claiming “irresponsible packaging and marketing”

#New York Attorney General sues PepsiCo over plastic pollution, claiming “irresponsible packaging and marketing”

17 Nov 2023 — Attorney General Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo for harming consumer and environmental health with its single-use plastic packaging. The New York Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that single-use plastic produced by PepsiCo contributes significantly to high levels of plastic pollution along the Buffalo River, US. 

The OAG asserts that the pollution is contaminating drinking water and harming wildlife in the area. The lawsuit alleges that PepsiCo substantially causes public harm in Buffalo, has failed to warn consumers about the potential health and environmental risks of its single-use plastic packaging and misleads consumers and the public about its efforts to combat plastic pollution. 

Attorney General James seeks to require PepsiCo to end practices threatening the environment and the public and to obtain disgorgement, civil penalties and restitution for the damage inflicted upon New York’s communities and environment. 

“No company is too big to ensure that their products do not damage our environment and public health. All New Yorkers have a basic right to clean water, yet PepsiCo’s irresponsible packaging and marketing endanger Buffalo’s water supply, environment, and public health,” says Attorney General James.

“No one should have to worry about plastics in their drinking water, plastic garbage littering their scenic riverfront, or plastic pollution harming wildlife. I will never hesitate to take on major corporations that put the health and safety of everyday New Yorkers and our planet at risk.”

Trash from a river on top of a tarp.Plastic waste collected in April 2022 from the Erie Basin Marina in the City of Buffalo, including Gatorade bottles and Lay’s potato chip packaging produced by PepsiCo.In response, a PepsiCo spokesperson tells Packaging Insights: “This is a complex issue and requires involvement from a variety of stakeholders, including businesses, municipalities, waste-reduction providers, community leaders and consumers. PepsiCo has partnered with these groups, improving recycling infrastructure across the country, boosting consumer awareness about the importance of recycling and establishing partnerships with organizations like Closed Loop Partners and The Recycling Partnership.”

Plastic pollution in river
In 2022, OAG surveyed all types of waste collected at 13 sites along the Buffalo River and found that PepsiCo’s single-use plastic packaging was the most significant. Of the 1,916 pieces of plastic trash collected with an identifiable brand, over 17% were produced by PepsiCo. It was three times more abundant than the next highest contributor.

From 2013 to 2022, approximately 78% of waste collected by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper volunteers in the Buffalo River watershed was plastic. Single-use plastic packaging for food and beverages, including food wrappers, plastic bottles and bottle caps of the types produced by PepsiCo, was found in significant amounts every year.

PepsiCo is headquartered in New York state. It manufactures, produces and packages at least 85 different beverage brands and 25 snack food brands that predominantly come in single-use plastic containers.

“Success in this effort requires collaboration. PepsiCo has been working in New York to address the needs of communities, including advocating for New York bottle bill improvements and EPR bills,” asserts a PepsiCo spokesperson.

“We have worked effectively with a variety of communities across the country and remain committed to doing so.”

Harm to public health
The Attorney General says that once in the environment, single-use plastic packaging breaks down and releases microplastics. She continues that plastic packaging has become a “persistent and dangerous” form of pollution along the shores of the Buffalo River and in its watershed.

The city of Buffalo sources its drinking water from Lake Erie, less than a mile from the mouth of the Buffalo River, and microplastics have been detected in the city’s drinking water supply. Microplastics have also been detected in fish species that are known to inhabit Lake Erie and the Buffalo River, many of which are food sources for the local community.A man holding a lays chip bag.PepsiCo says it is working to reduce its plastic but the New York Attorney General disagrees.

Attorney General James highlights how exposure to microplastics and their chemicals can cause various adverse health effects, from reproductive dysfunction to intestine inflammation and neurotoxic effects.  

Misleading information 
The Attorney General claims that PepsiCo has also misled the public about the effectiveness of its plastic recycling and its efforts to combat plastic pollution. 

The OAG asserts PepsiCo’s statements have misled consumers and the public by creating the impression that the company was making meaningful progress toward reducing the use of non-recycled (virgin) plastic in its packaging, “but no such progress is being made.”

“PepsiCo is serious about plastic reduction and effective recycling and has been transparent in our journey to reduce the use of plastic and accelerate new packaging innovation,” says the PepsiCo spokesperson.

In 2022, PepsiCo acknowledged that its use of virgin plastic in its packaging increased by 11%. Attorney General James also charges that PepsiCo failed to warn its consumers about the risk of harm to human health and the environment posed by its packaging. 

She continues that PepsiCo’s failure to warn consumers and its misleading public statements violate New York General Business Law § 349 and New York Executive Law § 63(12).

Through this lawsuit, the Attorney General is asking the court to require PepsiCo to cease contributing to the “public nuisance” it is causing in the Buffalo region, remediate the contamination and identify and implement measures to reduce the quantity of PepsiCo’s plastic packaging entering the Buffalo River. 

The lawsuit seeks to stop PepsiCo from selling or distributing any product in the Buffalo region in single-use plastic packaging that does not contain an adequate warning.

A nationwide study by Break Free From Plastic aggregated over 2.1 million plastic waste items from 2,373 separate collections across the US from 2018-2022. Each year, the study documented PepsiCo as the number one or number two producer of branded plastic trash collected across the US.  

By Sabine Waldeck 

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