If you think a nod and a wink to sustainability is enough, think again. The city of Baltimore has become the second US municipalty to put the onus right back on the originators of plastic and microplastic pollution - and it could involve billions of dollars in remediation costs.

 Plastic pollution NYState pepsico1Plastic pollution on the Buffalo River, NY state. The duck is real - not plastic

We've had the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, Some would argue that for the past 100 years or so, we have been living in the Plastic Age, but there is a price to pay. New York state is already in the process of legal action against PepsiCo and other plastic polluters - citing harmful micro-plastic found in the Buffalo River and drinking supplies.

Plastics are the offspring of fossil-fuels and the first mass-produced synthetic plastic was Bakelite - a product of combining Formaldehyde and Phenol under heat and pressure. Today, plastics are ubiquitous in drink bottles and food packaging - but who should pay for the down-stream clean-up of otherwise convenient containers and wrappings?

Plastic Pollution in GhanaPlastic Pollution affects the world - this beach in Ghana is polluted from plastics carried on Atlantic currents. Australia is far from immune.

We are indebted to resource-recycling.com for this latest report on municipalities getting tough with the originators of plastic waste.

The City of Baltimore, Maryland, has filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other major companies to recoup costs associated with cleaning up plastic pollution.

The lawsuit accuses the companies of making false claims, failing to warn, having design defects, using deceptive practices and violating state and local laws. 

“Baltimore is awash in plastic waste, and the city is seeking accountability from some of the biggest plastic polluters – including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Frito Lay – for contributing to what they have acknowledged as a crisis,” according to a press release from the law firm Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman, one of the law firms representing the city in court.

“The defendants have only increased their plastic production while touting sustainability and externalizing cleanup costs to local governments like Baltimore, which has spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning up their plastic trash,” according to the lawsuit, filed June 20 in Baltimore Circuit Court.

This is the second plastics-related lawsuit in less than a year against PepsiCo. In November 2023, the state of New York sued PepsiCo over river pollution, alleging the beverage company was “harming the public and the environment with its single-use plastic packaging.”

The defendants, which besides PepsiCo and Coca-Cola include Frito-Lay, W.R. Grace and Company, Mercury Plastics, Adell Plastics and Polymershapes Baltimore, have not yet responded in court.

Slow progress

Both companies have shown varying degrees of movement toward stated virgin plastics reduction and recycled content goals.

In 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola achieved California’s mandate to use 15% post-consumer resin in their bottles, according to CalRecycle data. 

And in its 2023 ESG report, released June 20, PepsiCo said it had reduced use of virgin plastic derived from non-renewable sources by 4% year over year.  

However, a report in October 2023 from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said increased use of virgin plastic resin by big-name brands – including the two global beverage companies – was offsetting PCR use. 

According to the MacArthur Foundation report, 7.3% of PepsiCo’s 2022 plastic consumption was PCR content, higher by 4.3 points from 2018. But of the company’s 2.6 million metric tons of total plastic used in 2022, 2.41 million were virgin resin – an increase of 10% over 2020 levels. 

Similarly, of Coca-Cola’s 3.43 million metric tons of overall plastic consumption in 2022, 2.92 million were virgin resin – higher by 8% from the 2020 total. PCR accounted for 14.9% of the total, 5.9 points higher than in 2018, the MacArthur report showed.  

In its 2023 ESG report – released the day the Baltimore suit was filed – PepsiCo projected that 98% of its packaging by 2025 would be recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or reusable, falling short of its goal of 100%.   

In 2023, 89% of PepsiCo packaging met those standards, compared to 87% in 2021, according to the ESG report.

A version of this story appeared in Plastics Recycling Update on June 26.

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