Greenwashing Accusations as Pepsi Goes Recycled

Environment

A major beverage producer is moving some products to 100 percent recycled plastic bottles – but critics say it doesn’t excuse its contribution to plastic production

One of New Zealand’s biggest beverage producers is rolling out a new batch of bottles made from 100 percent recycled plastic – a move it says will reduce greenhouse emissions by around 30 percent per bottle.

As a part of its pledge to achieve 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2025, Frucor Suntory is making 600ml bottles from fully-recycled materials for Pepsi Max, 7UP and Mountain Dew.

Moving Pepsi Max 600ml into recycled bottles means the amount of virgin plastic on Frucor Suntory production lines will be reduced by 9 percent.

It’s a move the company says is very much in line with the sustainability goals it hopes to reach by 2030. These include reducing CO2 emissions by 35 percent by 2030, sending zero physical waste to landfills, making all packaging recyclable, reducing water usage by 20 percent and having a third of their products low or no sugar.

“As an organisation we are led by our Suntory vision ‘Growing for Good’ and we strongly believe we have a role to play in protecting the environment and supporting local communities. The new Pepsi Max 100% recycled 600ml plastic bottles align with both our waste reduction goals and wider sustainability efforts,” said Frucor Suntory chief executive Darren Fullerton.

On paper, Frucor Suntory makes a good case for caring about those goals, having already reached the target for its water reduction target and recycling 95 percent of its waste. Currently, one in six of its products are low or no sugar.

But not everybody is ready to applaud them for doing good when it comes to the environment.

Ethical marketing expert Kath Dewar for one was more than a little skeptical of the announcement. As managing director of GoodSense, a marketing company with the claimed mission of using marketing as a force for good, she’s well aware of corporations using small measures of eco-friendliness to drum up goodwill, while neglecting to correct other unsustainable behaviours.

She described the move to recycled plastics as “tokenistic”, saying it gave the appearance of doing good while allowing the company to keep producing large amounts of plastic.

“It’s hugely profitable for them to keep using plastic and wash their hands of the downstream effects,” she said. “Recycled plastic can still degrade to micro plastic in the ocean.”

She pointed to companies like Karma Drinks, which makes a point of sticking to aluminium and glass when it comes to packaging.

“They’re trying to make it seem like recycled plastic is a whole lot better, but it’s missing the point,” she said. “We are locked into this disposable mindset, and companies spend millions trying to keep us locked into it.”

Dewar said mass production of plastic packaging puts the onus on the individual to shop ethically – and the lines may be blurred by plastic packaging with labels emphasising their environmental friendliness.

Indeed the Government may be stepping in right around the time that Frucor Suntory decides to make this move. Back in 2020, then associate environment minister Eugenie Sage announced six products that would be prioritised under product stewardship schemes, which will enact regulations making producers responsible for ongoing effects of what they produce.

The list includes car tyres, agrichemicals, large batteries – and plastic packaging.

“Regulated product stewardship helps put the responsibility for waste and what happens to products at the end of their useful life on manufacturers, importers, retailers and users, rather than on communities, councils, neighbourhoods and nature,” Sage said at the time. “Old products that have reached the end of their life can be used to make something new, especially if they are designed better for reuse and recycling.”

The new bottles do seem to fulfil these wishes, and there is the hope that the prominence of their recycled nature on the label will encourage consumers to get the bottle into a recycling bin instead of on its way to a landfill.

The Ministry for the Environment has a planned sequence of problem plastics that will be phased out. Polystyrene cups and plastic drink stirrers are on the chopping block later this year. Then next year time is up for plastic plates, straws and the little stickers you find on apples.

But the Government’s plans have yet to reach Coke and Pepsi bottles, despite recent research suggesting Kiwis are waking up to the unsustainable realities of plastic.

Kantar’s Better Futures report, published earlier this month, showed the build-up of plastic in the environment as the fourth biggest concern Kiwis have after the cost of living, protection of children and availability of affordable housing.

Other concerns in the top 10 included too much waste being generated and over-packaging, non-recycled packaging and growing landfills.

Whether or not Frucor Suntory’s latest move will help to ease these concerns remains to be seen. Part of this depends on whether their recycled bottles go on to be recycled again – which can factor heavily on something as simple as how easy it is to find a recycling bin.

“New Zealanders want to do the right thing, they are even willing to pay a bit more to do so,” said Dewar. “But it’s all contingent on whether or not the product goes on to the landfill.”

She pointed to the lack of recycling bins at most public bins, meaning Kiwis who want to make sure they recycle often have to go the extra mile to find the right kind of bin when out and about.

At the moment, New Zealanders generate more than 17 million tonnes of waste per year, and almost 13 million tonnes of that goes to landfill.

New recycling schemes announced by Environment Minister David Parker last month are currently in a period of public consultation.

The schemes involve standardising kerbside recycling so businesses will have an easier time of developing packaging that is recyclable anywhere in New Zealand, and a container return scheme for beverages to incentivise returning empty drink bottles.

“More than two billion drinks are sold every year in New Zealand. Less than half of these containers are recycled, meaning that over a billion containers end up as litter, are stockpiled, or sent to landfills every year,” said Parker.

“With a container return scheme in place, we can increase our recycling rate for beverage containers to between 85 percent and 90 percent.”

A spokesperson from Frucor Suntory said the company is committed to leading a shift towards a circular economy by increasing their use of recycled content, and said 93 percent of its packaging is currently recyclable, including aluminium cans which make up 60 percent of its portfolio.

“We believe it’s important to engage the New Zealand public on these issues so we can encourage responsible disposal that allows materials to have the chance to be recovered and recycled,” the spokesperson said.

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