‘Plastic recycling is a dead-end street’, claims Greenpeace. Has the beverage industry got it all wrong?

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/lserg
Pic:getty/lserg

Related tags: Plastic bottles, rPET, Recycling, Polyethylene terephthalate, Sustainability, Recyclable materials

Beverage giants champion the circular model of recycling plastic bottles and using recycled content in new bottles as a way to reduce plastic waste and use of virgin plastic. But a new report from Greenpeace USA criticizes this model: calling for an industry-wide rethink and a complete shift to reuse and refill. 'Companies can no longer use recycling as a smokescreen to divert attention from the systemic changes that are needed' it says.

Much of the packaging sustainability focus in the beverage industry to date has been on recycling and using recycled content. But Greenpeace says the strategy fails at the first hurdle in that, in fact, ‘no type of plastic in the packaging in the US meets the definition of recyclable used by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy’.

And it says recycling of plastic waste fails because it is ‘difficult to collect, virtually impossible to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and not economical to recycle.’

Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, said: “Corporations have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable. The real solution is to switch to systems of reuse and refill.”​ 

Is recyclable plastic actually recycled? (not really)

The report, 'Circular Claims Fall Flat Again' (2022 edition) covers all plastics used in F&B and other common household items, although the environmental advocate has consistently targeted plastic bottles (with high-profile campaigns against Coca-Cola​ in particular due to its size) and continues to do so in this latest edition. 

The report notes overall plastic recycling was estimated to have declined to about 5–6% in 2021, down from a high of 9.5% in 2014 and 8.7% in 2018.

Companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have committed to ensuring all of their packaging will become 100% recyclable in the near future. 

But Greenpeace questions the actual recycling levels of PET #1 (used in plastic bottles) and HDPE #2 (milk bottles and juice bottles). While companies tend to use the term 'recyclable' in meaning that the material used can, theoretically, be recycled: that's a long way from meaning that it actually is recycled or that appropriate recycling infrastructure even exists. 

"Corporate plastic pledge performance reporting does not reflect the failure of plastic recycling because it relies on the theoretical possibility of recycling a plastic item, rather than actual plastic waste processing rates.

"The reported shares of recyclable, reusable, or compostable plastic packaging used by EMF NPE and US Plastics Pact member companies – 65.3% at the global level and 37% in the US – can hardly be taken at face value when credible estimates show that only 9% of plastic was recycled globally in 2019 and only 5–6% of plastic waste was recycled in the US in 2021." - Greenpeace

“By Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE)​ standards, an item must have a 30% recycling rate to receive the “recyclable” classification,"​ says Greenpeace.

"Two of the most common plastics in the U.S. that are often considered recyclable – PET #1 and HDPE #2, typically bottles and jugs – fall well below the EMF NPE threshold, only achieving reprocessing rates of 20.9% and 10.3%, respectively.

"For every other type of plastic, the reprocessing rate is less than 5%. 

“While PET #1 and HDPE #2 were previously thought of as recyclable, this report finds that being accepted by a recycling processing plant does not necessarily result in them being recycled – effectively negating the recyclability claim.”

In a statement sent to BeverageDaily, Nestlé highlighted the need for infrastructure to support recycling. “As of the end of 2021, 80% of our plastic packaging had been designed for recycling​, i.e. could be recycled in dedicated recycling facilities.

"We expect to reach more than 95% by 2025 and remain committed to achieving 100%. We also believe that it is important to support dedicated recycling infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure is currently the main barrier for a waste free future.”

It also highlighted its efforts to reduce the amount of plastic used: “We have reduced the weight of our plastic packaging by 35%, from 1.5 million tons in 2019 to 0.98 million tons at the end of 2021, as a result of product portfolio shifts and packaging redesigns. 

“In fact, we have moved beyond peak virgin plastic packaging and are consistently reducing plastic year-on-year since our highest level in 2019, even while our business continues to grow.”

The Swiss giant says redesigning or pioneering alternative packaging is another approach it is taking. “As of 2021, one quarter of our plastic packaging that had previously not been designed for recycling had been improved and redesigned so that it could be recycled. At the same time, we additionally phased out non-recyclable materials." 

Coca-Cola, meanwhile, voiced its support for effective deposit return systems to increase recycling rates.

“We agree that more needs to be done to reduce plastic waste in the environment, and that is why we have a multi-faceted approach through our sustainable packaging initiative, World Without Waste, which includes virgin plastic reduction and reusability targets.

“We support well-designed extended producer responsibility and deposit return systems that can help fix broken systems and make them more cost effective, convenient, and accessible. A well-designed EPR program offers the best opportunity for a financially stable and efficient way to collect and remake recyclable materials used for consumer goods.”

Reuse and refill

Greenpeace is calling on companies to ‘urgently' move to reuse systems and packaging-free approached: asking them to target at least 50% reusable packaging by 2030. “Sectors for which a switch to reuse is comparatively easy – such as soft drinks, mineral water, alcoholic beverages, and coffee chains – should set more ambitious targets,” ​it adds.

It also wants to see a standardized reusable packaging system and shared reuse systems and infrastructure.

“Greenpeace believes that companies must take action now to eliminate single-use plastics and packaging and not rely on false solutions such as recycling (advanced, chemical, or otherwise), recycled content, and material substitution. Viable alternatives to single-use plastics and packaging, such as reuse and refill systems, exist and need to be rapidly scaled up and invested in by the world’s biggest plastic polluters.

"These companies can no longer use recycling as a smokescreen to divert attention from the systemic changes that are needed.”

PepsiCo has notably made a big step in the reuse and refill system with the acquisition of SodaStream, although did not respond to BeverageDaily’s request for comment on how this could inform future strategies or the report as a whole.

Nestle, meanwhile, told us: “We have run over 20 pilots of reuse and refill systems in 12 countries, but we recognize that more needs to be done here. We will work with our retail partners to increase and scale up reuse and refill systems.

“Nestlé is actively advocating for a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty and the prospect of new, harmonized national regulations to follow.”

Coca-Cola references a newly launched system that it hopes can help direct its future direction in returnable packaging. “In 2021, Coca-Cola Southwest Beverages launched a returnable glass bottle pilot in El Paso where consumers can purchase Coca-Cola in 500ml returnable glass bottles at select retail and foodservice locations. Insights from this pilot will help inform our returnable packaging strategy in the U.S.

"In North America, we’re also expanding our dispensing equipment solutions, like Coca-Cola Freestyle, and growing reusable cup programs with our foodservice customers and on-premise business to drive the use of more reusable packaging.”

The Greenpeace report can be found in full here​. Readers can also assess the full list of commitments and future strategy directions from Coca-Cola​ and Nestle​. 

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