Plastic industry players hit back at Eunomia PET greenwashing report over scientific and political omissions
10 Nov 2023 — Packaging industry associations and experts are dismissing the findings of a recent report showing that PET beverage bottles cannot be 100% recyclable or recycled, as commonly claimed, and that companies making these claims are using skewed research and could potentially be prosecuted under anti-greenwashing legislation.
The report, which was released along with ClientEarth, ECOS (Environmental Coalition on Standards) and Zero Waste Europe, argues that the multiple non-PET parts of a standard beverage bottle are not recyclable or recycled and that PET does not have a 100% collection and recycling rate anywhere.
In a statement released by Natural Mineral Waters and UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe, the associations say that “while some products do use very high or 100% recycled PET (rPET) in their bottles, this cannot yet be achieved for every bottle. Unfortunately, collection rates for beverage packaging at the EU level are stagnating below 60%, and the PET from recycled bottles is often downcycled into other applications.”
Ed Kosior, founder and director of NextLoopp, tells Packaging Insights that: “Overall, the report seems to miss the point about what a consumer wants to do when they read the words ‘recyclable’ or ‘recycled content,’ which surely is the whole point to the report.”
“This is a report that is trying to make a point that PET recycling is not 100% circular at the moment. This is undoubtedly true but it should not be a reason for stopping all the endeavours to keep making progress to make our use of all resources, including PET, more circular.”
The report makes several key mistakes and omissinos, according to experts.Since the report’s release, ClientEarth, the Environmental Coalition on Standards and the European Consumer Organization have filed a legal complaint to the European Commission against Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Danone for making misleading claims.
“Our report calls for clearer messaging for consumers to help allow for more informed choices when purchasing. Claims such as 100% recycled plastic or 100% recyclability may mislead consumers into somehow believing that their purchasing decisions are part of a fully circular system and without environmental impact, which is not the case,” says a spokesperson for Eunomia Research and Consulting.
“We have never suggested stopping all endeavours with PET recycling as it is not 100% circular at the moment. We believe many of the comments [in this article] can be debunked by simply reading the report fully.”
The Eunomia PET report argues that bottle parts like caps, labels, adhesives, inks and other components of a beverage bottle are typically not recycled or recyclable. Kosior says including other non-PET bottle parts in the report is misguided and omits important developments.
“The report argues that since the adhesive on a PET is not being recycled, then it is not possible for the recycling process to be 100% recyclable. This seems like a statement from the ‘Nirvana Recycling Police.’”
The report also states that because caps are not typically recycled, the recyclability of bottles can be less than 100%.
“Yet they don’t discuss the current destinations of caps and labels that are all currently recycled from PET plants into other polyolefin applications. Nor is there mention of tethered caps that will be compulsory in the EU from 2024 (many already seen on bottles), which can create a closed loop for PP caps,” Kosior says.
“There is also no mention of new polyolefin recycling processes such as Nextloopp and PureCycle that target food grade recycled PP and could be applied to tethered PP caps.”
Supply chain losses, greenwashing threats
The report also draws attention to losses made during the PET recycling process, which are pointed to as further proof of the lack of circularity.
However, Kosior says there is no mention of the many businesses that take these materials and recover the PET and polyolefins into value-added resins that go into new products, thereby avoiding virgin polymer production.
“This stream is totally absent from their considerations of circularity, which should be done if they are being particularly finickity,” he says.Much of the PET that is recycled by the beverage industry ends up being bought by other industies.
Kosior also says the warnings made by the report and its commentators to brand owners about what claims can be made when declaring if a package is recyclable or has recycled content “has some very interesting statistics.”
“However, it has the character of a report written for lawyers that wish to argue about fine details of definitions about ‘recyclability’ and ‘circularity.’”
“I am sure that the brand owners are trying to reach consumers and influence their actions to buy and recycle environmentally friendly products that they put onto the market, and hence the messages being used need to be simple rather than complex with multiple subsidiary clauses,” he says.
Technical omissions, downcycling debate
UNESDA Soft Drinks Europe and Natural Mineral Waters are also resounding their call for a priority access system whereby PET bottle producers receive an equal amount of the PET their industry recycles. Currently, bottlers’ DRS systems create roughly 70% of Europe’s rPET, but the beverage industry receives only 30% back.
But Kosior says there are also benefits to the downcycling of PET bottles, which the report does not discuss.
“The extensive use of PET bottles into thermoforms and textiles as valid destinations for PET bottles is an important omission even though these are major current destinations for PET bottles in many countries,” he says.
“There are also some technical statements that I would like to see corrected about the process of recovery of PET to set the record straight. One major omission is the truncated reference to recently published work showing that recycling PET at the ratio 75% rPET to 25% virgin PET could happen indefinitely without major impact on the properties, which is a huge endorsement to reach higher recycling rates.”
“The report’s interpretation was that this data seemed to limit circularity even while collection and recycling rates are building toward higher rates,” he concludes.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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