Big Companies Sued for their Contribution to the Plastics Crisis

Ocean Pollution – Floating Bags and human plastic waste in the open ocean. 3D illustration.

Plastic pollution can seem like an insurmountable problem and in large part it’s because we can’t agree on who the culprits of the problem are and who’s responsible for the solution.

Yes, manufacturers produce plastic, retailers sell it and consumers buy it as plastic has a lot of useful qualities. Plastic makes our lives convenient in many ways but at this point, our planet is drowning in it. While there have been a number of corporate commitments to reduce plastic and make it more circular, the responsibility of actually capturing and recycling plastics still largely falls on municipalities and not the makers and retailers of plastics.

It’s for this reason that the Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco Bay Area environmental group sued some of the world’s biggest beverage and product manufacturers yesterday, accusing them of polluting the world’s oceans and waterways, including San Francisco and Monterey bays, with millions of tons of plastic.

What’s Happening: As the San Francisco Chronicle explained, the lawsuit, filed in San Mateo Superior Court by the Berkeley-based Earth Island Institute (EII), accuses ten of the giants in soft drink, food, candy, personal care and cleaning products sales of essentially overwhelming the world’s ecosystem with plastic while falsely claiming the bottles, containers and packaging material they produce will be recycled when most of it won’t be.

  • The complaint accuses Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Clorox, Danone, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, Mars, Crystal Geyser and Mondelez of negligence, creating a public nuisance, breaching their warranties and failing to warn consumers about the dangers of plastics.
  • The institute, which is seeking unspecified damages, wants the court to order the companies to reduce plastic production, pay for cleanup and stop implying their plastic containers will be recycled until there are resources available to do the job.

In the San Francisco Bay estuary alone, it’s estimated that 7 trillion tiny pieces of plastic, roughly equal to 1 million pieces each for every man, woman and child in the Bay Area, flow into San Francisco Bay.

Biggest Offenders: In 2019 Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo were identified as the worst corporate plastics polluters in 2019. Incidentally, these are the same companies that EII is suing.

Full Court Press: EII has been a leading environmental voice on holding companies accountable for the waste they produce. They supported the recently-released Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act that was introduced by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). This bill seeks to achieve a similar outcome as EII’s lawsuit: to place the responsibility of recycling more on companies and less on cities and states that are already overwhelmed by municipal waste. There’s a lot of momentum around this notion, that if you make it and sell it, you own it forever.

Why This Matters: This lawsuit, much in the same way that New York State sought to find Exxon liable of fraud,  is the first of its kind to hold the world’s largest consumer products businesses liable for our plastic pollution crisis. If successful, it could set a legal precedent that formally puts the onus of cleaning up plastic waste on companies that use it to sell their products. A staggering 91% of plastic isn’t recycled and it’s evident that even though companies like Coca-Cola put recycling labels on their bottles, that’s not nearly enough to make plastics truly circular. Especially since Coca-Cola recently announced that it will make no effort to stop making plastic bottles because it says that’s what its customers prefer. On the whole, this could be a great example of a Pigouvian tax that makes companies calculate the cost of collecting, recycling, and reusing plastic into their business models.


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