BY EMMA COWEN
Plastic pollution is a global issue affecting humanity and wildlife, primarily generated by plastic producing companies – and recent legal action has been taken to combat this. On Wednesday 15th November, the second largest food company in the world, PepsiCo, faced a lawsuit filed by the state of New York for harming locals and wildlife through its plastic pollution. By filing one of the first lawsuits against an American giant plastic producer, Attorney General Letitia James could potentially pave the way for a new legal basis beneficial for the environment, enforcing the reduction of single-use packaging on companies.
PepsiCo, producer of big-name snacks and beverage brands, was accused by James for contaminating the Buffalo River due to its “irresponsible” plastic packaging. Indeed, over 17% of the pieces of rubbish collected along the river last year was produced by the company – according to the lawsuit, the microplastics would affect wildlife habitats and the locals’ access to clean water. The external costs of PepsiCo’s activities notably undermine the Buffalo community’s fifty years of efforts in clearing up the river, coupled with its unfulfilled promises of “address[ing] the needs of” the community. The corporation was also held responsible for misleading its consumers by promoting its efforts to reduce its plastic production despite neglecting the packaging's potential harm – its use of non-recycled plastic has skyrocketed, increasing by 11%.
James thus asked for disgorgement, financial penalties, and restitution from the company, pleading for PepsiCo to reduce its plastic from entering the river. Whether or not the court rules in favour, the trial is historical in terms of climate justice as it is backed up by a state government. It comes after a succession of others also aimed at large-scale corporations such as Coca-Cola or Shell for greenwashing. Thus, the concept of ‘polluter pays’ can play its role in holding companies accountable for their contribution to climate change.
However, whilst these trials provide a significant stepping stone towards combating plastic waste, they fall into a category of solutions which have their limits. The attempt to encourage companies to innovate their production processes to avoid facing legal and punitive consequences, such as with the CFC ban established in the 1985 Montreal Protocol, is still optimistic. Companies can be disincentivised due to increase in production costs to bypass the bans on single-use plastic and the development of the ‘free rider’ mentality if regulations are to be nationally set (rather than internationally), as actors in different countries will not have to face the same restrictions. Moreover, the trials themselves confirm the pervasive use of the climate crisis as a form of brand marketing by companies to pursue their polluting activities, creating a barrier to meaningful change.
As illustrated by the previously stated trials, such measures have struggled to counter the influence of major polluting corporations in the short-term. Perhaps instruments with more direct effects, such as the carbon tax, may be more effective, guaranteeing that they have sufficient leverage and are adapted to the size of the companies. Crucially, the issue of pollution and climate change should be treated on a global level, policies ensuring immediate action and facing the current situation’s urgency.
Image: Tony Webster