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CALIFORNIA NON-PROFIT TAKES ON BIG PLASTIC IN FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND LAWSUIT
By Suzanne Forcese
Earth Island Institute, a California non-profit organization, has filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against ten companies-- including giants like Nestlé, Crystal Geyser Water Company, Danone, The Coca-Cola Company, Pepsico, Clorox, Mars, Mondelez, Colgate-Palmolive, and Proctor & Gamble -- for polluting waterways, coasts, and oceans with millions of tons of plastic packaging.
The lawsuit was filed in California State Superior Court, February 26, 2020, alleging violations of the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act, public nuisance, breach of express warranty, defective product liability, negligence, and failure to warn of the harms caused by their plastic packaging.
WaterToday spoke with Earth Island’s General Counsel, Sumona Majumdar.
“The products that we are targeting in our lawsuit are contained in plastic packaging that is designed to be used for a short period of time, sometimes just a few minutes,” Majumdar told us. “And yet, this packaging pollutes our bodies from one generation to the next, and our planet for centuries. Our defendants churn out millions of tons of plastic packaging each year and want us to believe that it is all being recycled. It’s a misinformation campaign.”
For the past 40 years Earth Island Institute has played a leading role in the fight to protect our oceans, coasts, and marine life. In 2017, Earth Island launched their legal arm to offer legal protection for irreplaceable resources, wild spaces, and wildlife that are critical to a healthy planet. Advocates combine the knowledge and expertise of their grassroots project network with the pro bono resources of law firms, legal clinics and non-profit organizations.
Through the lawsuit, Earth Island is seeking, among other things, to recover the significant resources it expends to prevent and mitigate the effects of plastic pollution.
“Fundamentally, we are targeting the major users of plastic. These are the companies that profit from cheap packaging but don’t cover the cost of clean-up,” Majumdar said. “We, as an organization, are picking up that bill in our clean-up campaigns. We’ve seen our costs increase in the last five years.” Majumdar adds that there are other organizations that run clean-up campaigns, government entities, and ordinary citizens.
“We are expecting the Defendants to be responsible for the clean-up.”
Mark Molumphy, lead counsel for Earth Island adds, “We are ingesting more and more plastic in the water we drink and the food we eat.” The complaint alleges that the average person ingests approximately 5 grams of plastic on a weekly basis – roughly the size of a credit card. Further, as described in the complaint, plastic alters the chemical composition of the ocean. Potential pollutants released through this process include bisphenol A and PS oligomer, two known hormone disruptors. Finally, plastic particles attract other toxins, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), thus becoming more toxic to humans, wildlife, and the environment over time.
WaterToday obtained a copy of the Complaint, stamped February 26, 2020 in the County of San Mateo, California, which cites Break Free From Plastic’s Global Brand Audit.
“In total, 72,451 volunteers in 51 countries conducted 484 brand audits. These volunteers collected 476,423 pieces of plastic waste, 43% of which was marked with a clear consumer brand…The top three contributors – Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé – are linked to 14% of global oceanic plastic pollution.”
Majumdar says “Big Plastic’s playbook is similar to other industries such as Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma with their knowing contribution to public harms. We see it time and again. They create a narrative that deflects blame and hide behind it.”
“A major part of this misinformation has been the campaign that plastic is recyclable and that any shortcomings are those of the consumer.”
The Complaint states: “Recycling captures less than 10 percent of plastic produced annually. Currently, the annual weight of plastic production globally is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity…. The labor and cost required to sort, melt, and reconstitute the approximately 33 million tons of plastic produced in the United States every year is insurmountable…. Due to the availability of cheap raw materials to make ‘virgin plastic’, there is no market demand for recycled plastic.”
Most plastic can only be usefully recycled once, meaning it is only temporarily diverted from the waste stream.
WaterToday contacted the International Bottled Water Association but was unable to elicit a statement.
Both Pepsico and Coca-Cola sent our request for a statement to the American Beverage Association.
William Dermody, spokesperson for the American Beverage Association provided WaterToday with the following emailed statement:
“Plastic waste is a worldwide problem that demands thoughtful solutions. America’s beverage companies are already taking action to address the issue by reducing our use of new plastic, investing to increase the collection of bottles so they can be remade into new bottles as intended, and collaborating with legislators and third-party experts to achieve meaningful policy resolutions.”
Sumona Majumdar concludes, “People are outraged. This is just the beginning and it runs in parallel with our other lawsuits on the impacts to municipalities caused by climate change. It’s the same narrative. If past is a prologue, we expect a long fight.”
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