In 1973, a DuPont engineer named Nathaniel Wyeth patented the PET plastic bottle, an innovative and sustainable alternative to glass. Since then, production has skyrocketed to more than half a trillion bottles a year, driven by beverage companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé.
It’s no secret that most of these PET bottles, named after the polyethylene terephthalate plastic they are made of, are never recycled. Many end up on beaches or in waterways, where they break down into unsightly plastic shards and fragments that threaten marine life. But the devastated beaches are just the tip of the iceberg. According a new report Co-published by nonprofit Defend Our Health and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Petrochemicals campaign, PET plastic bottles cause dangerous chemical pollution at every stage of their life cycle.
“Plastics have a terrible burden on people’s health,” said Mike Belliveau, executive director of Defend Our Health. He urged the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, to impose stricter limits on the use of toxic chemicals, and called on beverage companies like Coca-Cola – named the number one plastic polluter for five consecutive years by the Break Free From Plastic coalition – to replace at least half of their plastic bottles with reusable and refillable container systems by 2030.
“The beverage industry must be responsible and held accountable for the impacts of its plastics on the supply chain,” Belliveau said.
The report begins at the end of plastic’s life cycle, with discarded PET plastic bottles releasing carcinogenic pollutants and heavy metals into the environment. Although industry trade groups like to advertise PET as “100% recyclablethe reality is that 70% of bottles are never collected for recycling. Instead, they are thrown away, sent to landfills or incinerated, causing air pollution that disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. Of the remaining 30%, Defend Our Health estimates that only a third are made into new bottles; the rest is either wasted during the recycling process or “recycled” into lower quality plastic products like carpet.
While the global production of plastic waste is expected to triple by 2060experts say the recycling infrastructure is unlikely to keep pace. Recent research also shows that the recycling process can unintentionally incorporate toxic chemicals in recycled toys, kitchen utensils and other products, potentially putting consumers at risk.
Chemical releases also occur further upstream in the PET bottle supply chain, when the bottles are on the shelf. Independent tests suggest that virtually all plastic bottles release chemicals into the beverages they contain. These chemicals include antimony from antimony trioxide, a carcinogenic catalyst used to speed up the production of PET plastic. A Defend Our Health 2022 Review found antimony in Diet Coke, Honest Tea, Dasani and other Coca-Cola products at levels exceeding the California Drinking Water Standard.
In response to Grist’s request for comment, Coca-Cola said all of its products are safe and have been approved by regulators everywhere they operate. “Consumers can be assured that our products are safe and of high quality,” a spokesperson said.
The rest of the report focuses on raw materials, chemical components of PET. The production of monoethylene glycol, for example – one of the main ingredients of PET – causes the annual release of about 68,000 pounds of carcinogenic ethylene oxide into the air, and is the country’s main source of pollution by 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen. . The processing and refining of oil and gas to make other plastic feedstocks – chemicals like ethylene and para-xylene – can emit particulates, smog-producing volatile organic compounds and aromatic hydrocarbons. The extraction of this oil and gas itself causes the release of over 1,000 chemicals, some of which may have unrecognized health effects.
“We are moving forward with many of these chemicals without understanding the implications for human health,” said Roopa Krithivasan, research director of Defend Our Health and co-author of the report. She said the burden of chemical pollution falls most heavily on marginalized communities, including the poor and people of color who live near fossil fuel extraction sites, factories that produce PET or its chemical components and waste incinerators. According to Defend Our Health, people of color make up nearly two-thirds of people at serious risk of cancer by living within six miles of ethylene oxide emissions from a petrochemical plant.
“Our future is in the crosshairs,” Yvette Arellano, executive director of the Houston-based environmental justice organization Fenceline Watch, told reporters Monday at a press conference for the report. “As women of color in far-right southern states captured by oil interests, we are disenfranchised and disproportionately affected. Many including myself are diagnosed with infertility, babies are affected in the womb even before their first breath, and even after that they can potentially be diagnosed with developmental issues, neurological issues, immune issues .
Belliveau said the EPA has done a good job identifying these disparities, but a “terrible” job fixing them. In general, he said the agency should do more to regulate plastic-related chemicals — such as adopting a federal limit for 1,4-dioxane in drinking water, adopting tougher standards for pollution by ethylene oxide and setting stringent pollution standards for other plastics. related chemicals. Companies could also help by voluntarily replacing dangerous chemical additives with safer alternatives.
The EPA did not respond to Grist’s request for comment in time for publication.
More broadly, however, Belliveau wants to see fewer plastic bottles produced in the first place. States like California are beginning to push companies in this direction by mandating the elimination of certain single-use plastics and replaced by reusable systems — like soda fountains and bottle-filling stations — but environmental groups say the private sector must also step up its efforts. Defend Our Health wants soda makers like Coca-Cola to sell at least half of their beverages in reusable or refillable packaging by 2030 — a goal twice as ambitious as Coca-Cola’s current goal.
In fact, Coke appears to be backtracking on its commitment to reuse: in its latest sustainability report, the company said refillable packaging accounted for just 14% of products sold in 2022, down from 16% the previous year. Based on Coca-Cola’s reported sales volume, the non-profit organization Oceana believes the decrease means the company generated 5.8 billion additional single-use bottles over the past two years, replacing reusable packaging.
Coca-Cola “has a history of breaking promises,” Matt Littlejohn, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Oceana, told Grist. He said the Defend Our Health report, in which Oceana did not participate, highlights how important it is for Coca-Cola to meet and exceed its existing goals — “not just for ocean health, but also for the health of all of us”.
Coca-Cola did not respond to Grist’s request for comment on its reuse goals.
*Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that the report was co-published by Defend Our Health and the Beyond Petrochemicals Campaign.