Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestle have been accused of making misleading claims about how much of the vast amounts of plastics they use is recycled.
Lawyers have complained to the European Commission that the firms’ claims that their single-use plastic bottles are either 100% recycled or 100% recyclable bottles don’t stack up.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), backed by environmental groups ClientEarth and Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), says that this is misleading, because bottles are never made entirely of recycled materials.
It said it is common for non-recycled plastic to be added to the body, and plastic cannot be recycled forever in an infinite loop.
Lids cannot be made from recycled materials, and labels are rarely, it adds.
Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of BEUC, said consumers “increasingly want to make the most sustainable choice”, but are “bombarded with incorrect and deceptive claims”.
“Using ‘100% recycled/recyclable’ claims or displaying nature images and green visuals that insinuate that plastic is environmentally friendly is misleading consumers.”
Although the bottles themselves may be 100% recyclable in theory, they often do not make their way into the recycling system, and sometimes end up on the streets or in the ocean.
Plastic bottles are one of the most common items found in the environment, after cigarette butts, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Coca-Cola produces three million tonnes of plastic packaging a year – equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute.
Just 38% of plastic packaging in the bloc is recycled, according to EU figures, though this includes things like wrapping as well as bottles.
Rosa Pritchard, plastics lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “The reality is single-use plastic is neither circular nor sustainable.
“Recycling can never catch up with the sheer volume of plastic produced on our planet.”
A spokesperson at Coca-Cola Great Britain said: “We’re working to reduce the amount of plastic packaging we use.”
They added: “We have an ambitious goal to collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one we sell by 2030, and we support well-designed deposit return schemes across Europe which we know can help us get our packaging back.
“We only communicate messages on our packaging that can be substantiated, with any relevant qualifications clearly displayed to enable consumers to make informed choices.
“Some of our packaging carries messages to drive recycling awareness, including whether our packages are recyclable and if they are made from recycled content.”
A spokesperson for Danone said: “At Danone, we strongly believe in the circularity of packaging and will continue to invest and lead the campaign for better collection and recycling infrastructure alongside our partners.
“We have also made real progress on our journey to reducing single use plastic and virgin plastic use in parallel [-10% in absolute since 2018].”
Nestle have been contacted for comment.