PepsiCo’s Plastic Waste in Buffalo River Leads to Groundbreaking Lawsuit by New York State Attorney General

Over 75% of shoreline litter in Buffalo River is plastic, with PepsiCo products being most prevalent, according to Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.

The New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit on November 16th, 2022, against the beverage giant PepsiCo, accusing the company of contributing to plastic pollution in New York’s Buffalo River and surrounding areas. This is one of the first lawsuits in the U.S. filed by a state against a major plastic producer.

The lawsuit alleges that PepsiCo has “engaged in long-running deception about plastics recycling, has aggressively marketed single-use plastic to the public without adequate warnings about plastic’s impact, and has failed to take the crisis seriously or make meaningful changes even as the devastating effects of plastic proliferate.”

Environmental groups have raised concerns about plastic pollution in the Buffalo River for years. A 2021 study by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper found that over 75% of all shoreline litter collected was plastic, with PepsiCo-branded products being the most prevalent. The New York Attorney General’s office conducted its surveys in 2022, finding PepsiCo plastics accounting for over 17% of all branded plastic litter.

The Buffalo River ultimately flows into Lake Erie, a drinking water source for over 11 million people. Studies have detected microplastics in Lake Erie and in fish populations that locals rely on for food. The lawsuit argues that plastic pollution poses risks to human health and the environment.

Details of the Lawsuit

The lawsuit was filed in the New York Supreme Court in Erie County and makes several key allegations against PepsiCo:

  • PepsiCo has contributed to a public nuisance by producing substantial plastic waste, polluting the Buffalo River. Surveys found that PepsiCo-branded items like bottles, bottle caps, and chip bags comprised over 17% of identifiable plastic litter.
  • PepsiCo has misled the public about its efforts to reduce plastic use and has increased its virgin plastic use despite public commitments to reduce it.
  • PepsiCo failed to warn consumers about plastic’s health and environmental risks, including endocrine disruption and increased cancer risk.

The lawsuit seeks to force PepsiCo to mitigate and remediate plastic pollution in the Buffalo River area. It also aims to prohibit PepsiCo from selling single-use plastics in Erie County unless they contain warning labels about plastic’s risks.

A study by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper reveals that the brand's products make up a high percentage of the garbage collected (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni).
A study by Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper reveals that the brand’s products make up a high percentage of the garbage collected (REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni).

PepsiCo’s Response

In response to the lawsuit, PepsiCo stated: “PepsiCo takes plastic reduction and effective recycling seriously, and we are committed to working collaboratively with local stakeholders on solutions.”

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The company says it aims for all its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025. PepsiCo also wants to reduce virgin plastic use by 50% per serving by 2030.

However, the lawsuit disputes this, saying the company’s virgin plastic use has increased despite its public commitments.

What Could Happen Next

Legal experts say this lawsuit could pave the way for similar actions in other parts of the country struggling with plastic pollution. States, counties, and cities may follow New York’s lead in holding major plastic producers accountable.

If the lawsuit succeeds, it could force PepsiCo to dramatically reduce its plastic footprint in New York or attach warning labels to products. Companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle could also face pressure to avoid similar litigation.

However, PepsiCo will likely devote extensive resources to fighting the lawsuit. Major plastics producers have already aggressively lobbied against plastic reduction legislation nationwide. Expect a lengthy legal battle between the state and PepsiCo’s team of lawyers.

The outcome of the case will have implications for plastic regulation far beyond New York. But it shines a spotlight on the massive plastic waste created by single-use food and beverage packaging that ultimately burdens public infrastructure and pollutes communities. This landmark lawsuit represents growing efforts to hold plastic producers financially and legally accountable.