New York has filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo over what it says is the corporation’s ongoing failure to minimize the environmental effects of its single-use plastic waste products, particularly along the Buffalo River, which empties into Lake Erie.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday by Attorney General Letitia James accuses the multinational corporation, whose headquarters are in New York, of violating the state constitution’s guarantee that every person “a right to clean air and water, and to a healthful environment.”
It wants the beverage and snack corporation to take reasonable action to prevent further plastic waste pollution and to adequately warn consumers of how its single-use packaging affects the environment. It also wants compensatory damages for the harm already done to the river, its shoreline and city residents whose drinking water comes from the waterway.
“Pepsi’s pollution has created a public nuisance that threatens our communities, and Pepsi has failed to keep its promises to reduce its use of plastic,” James said in a statement. “We’re filing this lawsuit because massive corporations must be held accountable for the harm they cause to our environment.”
A PepsiCo spokesperson, responding to the lawsuit, said the corporation is “serious about plastic reduction” and has been collaborating with “a variety of stakeholders” to improve recycling infrastructure, boost consumer awareness and create sustainable packaging.
“We have worked effectively with a variety of communities across the country and remain committed to doing so,” the company said in the statement.
Though plastic waste is everywhere, the lawsuit accuses PepsiCo of being the dominant source of trash that’s been found in the Buffalo River and elsewhere.
A 2022 survey by James’ office of waste collected at 13 sites along the river and its watershed found that PepsiCo made up 17.1% of the waste that could be identified with a brand. McDonald’s made up the second-highest amount.
“PepsiCo’s plastic packaging far exceeded any other source of identifiable plastic waste, and it was three times more abundant than the next contributor (McDonald’s),” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit cited similar findings in trash pickups elsewhere in the country, including a 2022 study of waste collected at national parks that found that PepsiCo’s packaging was a leading contributor of waste.
PepsiCo produces dozens of beverage brands ― including Pepsi products, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Aquafina water, and Brisk and Pureleaf teas. It also produces dozens of snack food brands, including Lay’s potato chips, Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos and Sun Chips.
Its snack food packaging is not recyclable, and the vast majority of its plastic beverage bottles can only be recycled a limited number of times, but most are not recycled.
“In 2020, only 26.6% of PET bottles were recycled in the US, with the rest incinerated, sent to landfills, or discarded directly or indirectly into the environment,” the lawsuit states, appearing to cite an annual report from the National Association for PET Container Resources.
Any plastic that’s not completely destroyed breaks down into microplastics, which enter drinking water and animal and human bodies, studies have found.
“Microplastic reduces root growth in aquatic plants, birds die from entanglement, and fish species show injury and inflammatory responses when microplastics are ingested. Microplastic exposure can also cause neurotoxic effects in animals, such as oxidative stress and inhibition of neurotransmitters important in brain functioning,” the suit states.
No “meaningful progress” is being made by PepsiCo to reduce plastic waste. Instead, the corporation has continued to increase its production of new, non-recycled plastic, the suit states.
PepsiCo has announced a goal to design 100% of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or reusable by 2025, though Steven Williams, CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America, told CNBC this year that the technology around biodegradable packaging is “still nascent.”
The lawsuit also accuses the company of repeatedly setting environmental goals that it doesn’t reach.
James’ office suggested placing a warning on PepsoCo products’ packaging about its potential contribution to plastic pollution and how this pollution affects human health and the environment.