Europe's food industry is missing plastic targets

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Two-thirds of all targets to reduce plastic waste fail or are dropped. This shows an exclusive DW research. A more consistent environmental policy could help solve the problem.

“Greenwashing” is when companies try to present themselves as more environmentally friendly than they actually are. The food and beverage industry is among the world's biggest plastic polluters – and routinely breaks promises to reduce packaging waste.

French food giant Danone made an ambitious pledge: within a year, 50% of the plastic in the company's water bottles would be made from recycled materials. Danone's sustainability report called the measure “a lever to reduce packaging weight and reduce CO2 emissions”. That was in 2008.

It would have been a step in the right direction in the fight against global plastic pollution. Not only is plastic one of the main products made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, it's also one of the most durable. Plastic bottles, for example, can take up to 450 years to decompose. This creates microplastics that harm animals and humans alike and pollute the sea, soil and air. And the food and beverage industry is one of the biggest plastic polluters in the world.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2019 around 79 million tons of plastic waste was disposed of directly into the environment: Into the soil and oceans, through incineration in open pits or in illegal landfills. That corresponds to more than a fifth of the total amount of plastic waste worldwide.

Together with partner media from the European Data Journalism Network, DW took a close look at the largest European food and beverage manufacturers: when companies promise to make plastic packaging more sustainable – do you comply?

This was not the case with Danone. By 2009, the company had pushed back its target for recycled plastics: “The group is targeting 20-30% by 2011,” says the 2009 report. “And eventually 50%.” When the company failed to reach that goal, it lowered the bar again. And again. In 2020, Danone still used just under 20% recycled PET in its water bottles worldwide. And for 2025, 16 years after the first self-imposed deadline, Danone has re-set itself an old goal: 50% recycled plastics in water bottles.

Until 2015, Danone referred the 2020 target to global bottled water production, later Danone apparently narrowed the target to ” Countries where the use of [recycled plastic] is allowed”

Danone did not respond to DW's inquiries about these discrepancies.

In total, DW and its partner media identified 98 plastic promises made by 24 food and beverage companies headquartered in Europe over the past 20 years. More than half of these commitments have only been made in recent years, mostly with the target year 2025.

With 37 commitments that should have already been fulfilled, the balance does not look good: 68% are either clear failed or were never mentioned again. When companies don't keep their promises, they usually don't mention it openly. Instead, they silently drop targets or shift their scope or target year.

Companies whose goals could not be verified contacted DW and updated the corresponding data as far as answers were available. If companies did not comment on unclear goals, the corresponding goals remained marked as unclear.

These numbers are consistent with studies across other industries: In 2021, the European Union examined sustainability claims on company websites in sectors such as apparel, cosmetics and household appliances and found that 42% of the claims were potentially exaggerated, false or misleading.

Even the goals that are said to have been achieved are in some cases more marketing tricks than long-term improvements.

There is, for example, the Belgian brewery Anheuser-Busch InBev, the company behind beer brands such as the American one Budweiser, Corona or Beck's. In 2017, AB InBev announced it would “protect 100 islands from marine plastic pollution by 2020.”

In practice, however, the company has not implemented long-term protective measures. Instead, AB InBev organized 214 one-off beach clean-ups in 13 countries and declared the effort a success a year ahead of schedule.

“Many companies use beach cleaning campaigns for advertising purposes,” says Larissa Copello, who organizes political campaigns for the environmental NGO Zero Waste Europe. “But they are the ones who bring all the rubbish to the beaches in the first place.” Zero Waste Europe advocates instead “turning off the tap” and reducing packaging waste at the source.

Only 19 of the 98 promises identified by DW aim to reduce plastic packaging or new plastic – and most of them still relate to the future.

Of the 24 companies for which DW was able to identify promises, 16 committed to making their plastic packaging recyclable. But even if all packaging were theoretically recyclable, that does not mean that it is actually recycled. “If there is no infrastructure to collect such products separately, then they cannot be recycled either,” said Copello.

The same applies to supposedly degradable or compostable products. “Here in Belgium, for example, there is no separate collection for compostable or biodegradable products,” says Copello. “They just end up in the residual waste bin.” However, plastic producers in particular have repeatedly opposed the development of effective recycling systems with massive lobbying.

In a third of the documented pledges, companies committed to using more recycled plastic in their packaging. That would be an improvement, says Copello. And some first steps have been taken: Italian company Ferrero, for example, started increasing the amount of recycled PET in their secondary packaging back in 2010. Swiss Coca-Cola bottler, Coca-Cola HBC, introduced a 100% recycled PET bottle for four of its water brands in 2019 after announcing it the year before.

Voluntary commitments are not enough< /h2>

Overall, however, demand for recycled plastics remains low and prices high. That means it's usually more profitable for companies to use freshly made virgin plastic.

Voluntary initiatives aren't enough, says Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director at the Brussels think tank Changing Markets Foundation, which exposes irresponsible corporate practices and itself for more comprehensive plastics legislation.

“Instead of using their power, money and resources to drive solutions, companies very often do the opposite,” Urbancic said. “They hide behind voluntary commitments to avoid the changes they need to make.”

In fact, voluntary commitments are often a deliberate tactic to delay and distract from progressive environmental legislation, she says.< /p>

Legislation pushes switch to recycled PET

Despite pressure from plastics producers, the European Union has recently passed ambitious plastics legislation. According to the single-use plastics regulation, for example, single-use items such as plastic bags, cutlery and straws may no longer be brought to EU markets. The EU is thus following the example of African countries such as Eritrea, which banned plastic bags as early as 2005, Rwanda (2008) and Morocco (2009).

In 2018, about half of all countries in Africa had already partially or completely banned the use of plastic bags

The new legislation is probably one of the reasons for the large number of new plastic promises in recent years. “This has made it clear to companies that they have to work much harder to achieve these goals,” says Urbancic. Now, according to Urbancic, companies themselves are demanding better recycling systems to meet their legal obligations.

Public initiatives can encourage greenwashing

More and more initiatives are documenting voluntary commitments made by companies in public databases. The EU, for example, compiles commitments on the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, and the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation lists plastic initiatives in its Global Commitment Programme.

The ambition behind the commitments made to the foundation varies greatly. Unilever, for example, has set itself the goal of reducing new plastic by 50% between 2020 and 2025, while Ferrero only reduces it by 10%. French wine and spirits producer Pernod Ricard has only targeted a five percent reduction.

Copello by Zero The Changing Markets Foundation's Waste and Urbancic argue that voluntary commitments, such as those advocated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, are less effective than legislation. Urbancic described such strategies as “a carrot without a stick”.

“Companies are not even required to disclose basic information like their plastic footprint. And the data that is released is not independently verified,” Urbancic said. As with other voluntary programs, there is a risk that they will be used as a cover for greenwashing and delay actual changes.

Curb plastic production

Changing Markets recommends that voluntary initiatives should at least set ambitious targets for participation. They should also ensure that participating companies report on their progress so that they can be held publicly accountable for their performance.

In the coming years, the EU is planning more comprehensive plastic regulations as part of the Circular Economy Action Plan, which should also include targets for recycling and measures to avoid packaging waste. And change is urgently needed: global plastics production is still increasing. This is projected to remain so for decades to come.

To even slow the rise, other countries would have to follow. The data shows that companies only change tactics when they feel pressure: from legislation, public accountability and increased consumer demand. The next litmus test will come in 2025 when companies have to deliver on their current plastic promises. Some of these goals are now binding – at least in the EU.

 

Julia Merk supported this research.

Edited by: Sarah Steffen, Gianna Grün

This project arose from a collaboration between several members of the European Data Journalism Network.

DW led the project, Alternatives Economiques, EURACTIV, Interruptor, OBC Transeuropa, Openpolis and Pod črto were partner editors.