Broken plastics promises

Illustration by Una Rebić/Pod črto

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.

Main findings:

  • 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. 

The data unit

Kira Schacht (Deutsche Welle, coordinator)
Kira Schacht is a data journalist at Deutsche Welle . Studied data-driven journalism at the Technical University of Dortmund and trained at rbb science. She is part of the data journalism initiative Journocode .
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Stories

Two-thirds of pledges to go greener on plastic fail or are dropped, a DW investigation has found. Here's how European food and drink companies break their own commitments, and how legislation might hold them accountable.

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