The lawsuit is the latest litigation seeking to stem the torrent of plastic pollution infiltrating waterways around the world as companies and consumers struggle to shake their addiction to plastic bottles, bags and wrappers.
“No company is too big to ensure that their products do not damage our environment and public health. All New Yorkers have a basic right to clean water, yet PepsiCo’s irresponsible packaging and marketing endanger Buffalo’s water supply, environment, and public health,” James said in a statement.
PepsiCo, headquartered in Purchase, N.Y., is one of the world’s largest food and beverage purveyors, the maker of snack foods such as Doritos and Cheetos, and soft drinks such as Mountain Dew and 7 Up, in addition to its namesake soda.
“PepsiCo is serious about plastic reduction and effective recycling, and has been transparent in our journey to reduce use of plastic and accelerate new packaging innovation,” the company said in an emailed statement.
“This is a complex issue and requires involvement from a variety of stakeholders, including businesses, municipalities, waste-reduction providers, community leaders and consumers,” the company said, adding that it is working with each of these groups.
Plastic pollution is a booming environmental problem. A recent study found Earth’s oceans contain more than 170 trillion pieces of plastic, an explosive rise from prior years. Diplomats are meeting this week in Kenya in the hopes of making progress on a landmark treaty to end global plastic pollution.
There are 21,000 pieces of plastic in the ocean for each person on Earth
In 2022, the New York attorney general’s office surveyed waste at 13 sites along the Buffalo River and its tributaries. After collecting nearly 2,000 pieces of plastic with identifiable branding, James’s team found plastic from Pepsi products to be the most abundant, representing over 17 percent of that trash.
Globally, PepsiCo is the second biggest plastic polluter, according to the environmental group Break Free From Plastic. The company has said it aims to have its packaging be “recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, or reusable” by 2025.
A popular kayaking destination in the summer, the Buffalo River snakes its way through the industrial heart of the city around closed grain silos and a General Mills factory that wafts the smell of Cheerios into the air. Waterfowl and white-tailed deer frequent the river and its tributaries, which wind their way through Buffalo’s leafy suburbs to the south.
James said plastic pollution poses a risk to both people and wildlife when the material breaks down to form microplastics that can enter drinking water systems and permeate blood and organs when consumed, noting that chemicals from plastics have caused early puberty, reduced sperm counts and higher rates certain cancers in studies on mammals. Buffalo draws its drinking water from Lake Erie, into which the Buffalo River runs.
In its lawsuit, the state attorney general office is asking a state court to force PepsiCo to clean up the plastic pollution, add warning labels to products sold in the region and find a way of reducing the amount of packaging that enters the river. In 2020, the California-based environmental group Earth Island Institute filed a similar lawsuit against PepsiCo and nine other companies for polluting California waterways with their plastic packaging.
Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said the lawsuit was “unprecedented and much needed” and called on other attorneys general “to consider similar lawsuits to protect scores of other rivers around the nation that are impacted by plastic pollution.”
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