Broken plastics promises
Plastic is not only one of the main products made from fossil fuels: it’s also one of the most enduring. Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to break down. The resulting pieces of microplastics harm animals and humans alike – polluting oceans, soil and even the air. 79 million tonnes of plastic waste were released into the environment through terrestrial or aquatic leakage, open-pit burning, or dumpsites in 2019. That represents over one-fifth of the global total.
The food and drink industry is one of the biggest plastics polluters in the world. That’s why we’ve researched over 50 of Europe’s biggest food and drink companies to find out if they aim to reduce their plastics consumption – and if they’re following through on promises. In total, we’ve identified 98 plastics commitments made during the past 20 years by 24 large food and drink companies headquartered in Europe – including Nestlé, AB InBev, Danone, and Unilever. More than half of these pledges were only made in the last few years, with most offering the stated aim of 2025.
- Companies often fail to meet their own pledges, but they usually don’t mention this openly. Instead, they silently drop the goal or shift its scope or target year. For instance, back in 2008 Danone promised that 50% of the plastics used in the company’s water bottles would be made from recycled materials in one year’s time. The target year has continuously shifted, it’s currently set for 2025.
- 37 of the companies’ pledges that we identified should have already been delivered on by 2022, but 68% of them either clearly failed or were never reported on again.
- Just 19 of the 98 pledges we found offered pledges to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging or the amount of virgin plastics. Other commitments focus on using more recyclable plastics – but that does not guarantee that the plastic will actually be recycled.
- Companies’ voluntary commitments can be a conscious tactic designed to delay and distract from legislation in the field, but risk facilitating greenwashing.
- The European Union’s plans to implement more thorough plastics legislation in the coming years are likely part of the reason for the rapid increase in plastics commitments by companies in the last few years.
In May 2022, the Constitutional Court decided to suspend the implementation of most of the contested articles pending a final decision. It is not known when the Constitutional Court will make its ruling.
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Europe’s food and drinks companies make big promises to cut plastic waste. But they don't deliver. We checked. A story about ambitious commitments, hidden failures and how to hold firms accountable.
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The data unit
Kira Schacht (Deutsche Welle, coordinator) is a data journalist at Deutsche Welle. She studied data-driven journalism at the Technical University of Dortmund and trained at rbb science. She is part of the data journalism initiative Journocode.
EDJNet members which took part in this investigation:
From our podcast Uncharted Europe
From EDJNet members:
- El Confidencial (Spain), Así incumplen las empresas sus promesas de contaminar menos , 10/08/2022
- Euractiv Italia (Italy), Plastica, molte aziende alimentari dell’Ue non rispettano gli impegni presi per ridurne il consumo , 11/08/2022
- Capital (Bulgaria), Европейските хранителни компании нарушават обещанията си за използване на пластмаси , 17/08/2022
- H-Alter (Croatia), Europske prehrambene tvrtke krše obećanja o plastici , 18/08/2022
- Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), Wciąż za dużo plastiku. Branża spożywcza nie dotrzymuje słowa , 22/08/2022
- Alternatives Economiques (France), Pollution plastique : les promesses des multinationales de l’agroalimentaire restent sans lendemain , 05/09/2022
- Voxeurop (France), European food companies fail to reduce their plastic footprint , 06/09/2022
- Taiwan News (Taiwan), European food companies break their plastics promises , 09/08/2022
- Plastic Molding News (USA), European Food Business Are Breaking Their Plastic Guarantees , 09/08/2022
- The World News Monitor (Austria), European food companies break their plastics promises , 09/08/2022
- Terra (Brazil), Empresas de alimentos quebram promessas de reduzir uso de plástico , 10/08/2022
- Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh), European food companies break their plastics promises , 11/08/2022
- Linkiesta (Italy), L’industria alimentare europea non riesce a rispettare gli impegni ecologici sulla plastica , 16/08/2022
- Altreconomia (Italy), Le multinazionali europee del cibo non rispettano le promesse fatte sull’uso della plastica , 24/08/2022