The BEUC pushes the European Commission to take action against misleading environmental claims
Published on 29th Nov 2023
Growing scrutiny of green claims in both the EU and UK
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), alongside member organisations from 13 EU countries, has filed an external alert to the European Commission in relation to misleading plastic bottle recycling claims being made within the EU. The report, which was carried out with the support of environmental groups ClientEarth and ECOS, seeks to prompt the European Commission to initiate a Consumer Protection Authorities (CPC) investigation, or sweep, into the claims. These investigations typically aim to get companies to agree to amend their practices, however in some cases these have led to enforcement actions by regulators in Member States.
What were the problematic claims identified by the BEUC?
In the complaint, the BEUC identified the following three environmental claims which it considered to be problematic because they were vague, factually inaccurate, or unsubstantiated:
- "100% recycled material";
- "100% recyclable material"; and
- the use of circular/green imagery with generic environmental statements.
What are the BEUC's main concerns with these environmental claims?
In its complaint, the BEUC raised several issues which shed light on why it believes that these claims are misleading:
Multiple components and recycling rates
Plastic bottles are composed of various components, including the cap, label, adhesives and printing inks. Not all of these components are recycled or recyclable, thus making any "100% recycled" or "100% recyclable" claims misleading. For example, bottle caps in the EU are typically made from virgin plastic. Although these appear to be small components of the bottles, they have a significant environmental impact, with approximately 362,000 tonnes of plastic used for caps each year.
Factual accuracy of "100% recycled material" claims
The BEUC contends that some bottles include offcuts or scraps of virgin plastic, making the claim of "100% recycled material" factually incorrect. The presence of this virgin plastic misleads consumers, who would reasonably expect "recycled" to mean that the plastic used has already undergone the recycling process and been repurposed into the bottle.
Technical limitations of recycling rates
None of the various components of a bottle, including the bottle itself (excluding the label and cap), can achieve a 100% recycling rate. The BEUC states that this claim is technically unachievable.
Non-proportional mass balance approaches
Within the industry, the "non-proportional mass balance" method is sometimes used. This is a chain of custody method which tracks recycled content through the supply chain and determines the proportion of recycled content in products. It can lead to individual products containing less recycled content than the amount claimed, and sometimes none at all.
Misleading impression of circular plastic bottles
The BEUC argues that the claims made, combined with the use of green/circular imagery, convey the impression that plastic beverage bottles are circular and have a neutral environmental impact. The BEUC asserts that this is far from the truth, as plastic bottles cannot be indefinitely recycled into new bottles. Additionally, even if plastic was circular, the environmental impact of plastic bottles remains higher than that of tap water or refillable bottles. Therefore, the BEUC argues that the use of these claims is considered misleading and likely to constitute greenwashing.
What this means for businesses
The external alert filed by the BEUC underscores the growing scrutiny of environmental claims within the EU and potentially increases the risk profile for these types of claims within the EU. If the European Commission decides to launch an official CPC investigation, the risk profile of these environmental claims will likely heighten even more.
Within the UK, the risk for these types of claims is also very high and, while UK regulators would not be bound by any outcome of this complaint, it could provide them with more ammunition in relation to these types of plastics claims. This is particularly relevant given that both the UK Competition and Markets Authority and Advertising Standards Authority are currently looking at green claims.
Businesses should be aware that these types of claims are high priority for regulators at the moment, as industry, consumer and political pressure in this space continue to build. Businesses should therefore take extra care to ensure that their environmental claims comply with relevant legal requirements, including, in particular, that they are truthful and accurate, are clear and unambiguous, do not omit or hide information, only contain fair and meaningful comparisons, and are supported by reliable and independent evidence.