On 23 June 2023, students of the Climate Law Clinic submitted an advertising complaint against misleading environmental marketing claims made by the multinational corporation Colgate-Palmolive. 

The complaint, which was submitted to the Dutch advertising authority (Reclame Code Commissie, RCC), challenged claims about the recyclability of the plastic packaging of Colgate-Palmolive products. More specifically, it addressed three environmental marketing claims made on Ajax cleaner bottles: “bottle and cap recyclable”, “bottle made from 100% recycled plastics” and “environmentally conscious product.” A decision by the RCC is expected after the summer. 

Plastic is mostly made from fossil fuels and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, plastic pollution is highly damaging for both the environment and human health. The production and use of plastic must therefore urgently be limited. However, plastic production is projected to grow significantly in the upcoming decade

Corporations that produce plastic or sell plastic-packaged products frequently emphasize the recyclability of plastic, in order to avoid regulation such as taxes on plastic packaging, mandatory bottle deposit schemes or bans. They often claim that their plastic packaging is recycled and/or made from recycled plastic. This suggests a closed loop of packaging materials that requires few resources and causes limited environmental harm. 

The problem with these recyclability claims is that they are mostly untrue. Plastic packaging mostly ends up in the general trash, and is therefore not recycled. Of the plastic that consumers put into the recycling bin, only a small percentage is actually recycled, while the rest is burned or ends up in the landfill. The reason is that the recycling of mixed plastic waste is technically difficult and expensive. And even the plastic that is recovered usually cannot be recycled into packaging of the same quality, but is “downcycled” into low quality materials that have very limited uses. The sole exception is PET plastic collected through a separate collection scheme, such as the Dutch statiegeld-system. 

Despite the claims made by Colgate-Palmolive, an Ajax cleaner bottle has never been a cleaner bottle or other plastic packaging of similar quality before, and will never be one again. Recyclability claims portray plastic in a too rosy light, and thereby obscure the reality of plastic packaging: its production requires huge amounts of new (“virgin”) plastic, and most of it is not and cannot be recycled.