Climate terms 101: What is Greenwashing?

Coca-Cola announced last week that after 60 years of selling Sprite in green plastic bottles, it would start using clear plastic instead. The reasoning, according to a Coca-Cola press release: clear bottles make the recycling process much easier and more sustainable.

There’s a particular reason for the change.

Recycling centers separate plastics by color during the process, so clear plastics that will later be recycled and used in food packaging are not discolored, according to Coca-Cola’s release. Green bottles are generally single-use but, occasionally, are recycled into rugs and clothing that are also difficult to recycle and usually end up in landfills.

On the other hand, clear plastics are recycled far more often.

But don’t congratulate Coca-Cola just yet.

While some might welcome climate-friendly change, environmentalists claim that Coca-Cola is misleading the public and sidestepping a bigger problem.

“Coca-Cola’s recent announcement is yet another blatant greenwashing attempt from one of the world’s worst plastic polluters,” said Kate Melges, Plastics Project Leader at Greenpeace, as reported by NPR. “We are in the midst of a massive plastic pollution crisis and we cannot recycle our way out of it.”

If you’ve not heard of “greenwashing,” it’s when corporations and governments try to convince the public that their products or policies are sustainable and eco-friendly, often deflecting attention from the more serious damage they are doing to the environment.

But sometimes, greenwashing can subtly shift blame to the consumer. Like when one of the world’s worst polluting oil companies, Shell, asked its followers on Twitter what they would be willing to do to reduce carbon emissions.

Shell followed up by saying: “Changing the energy system requires everyone to play their part.”

Some of the nation’s largest companies have slick advertising strategies showing off their green credentials to the public. That can come in many forms, from large marketing campaigns, public relations stunts or simply misbranding a product to appear more eco-friendly.

The Volkswagen and Audi emissions scandal is the most prominent example of greenwashing in recent years. The German-owned company used emissions-cheating software to advertise clean and environmentally friendly diesel vehicles. Mercedez Benz settled a similar lawsuit in 2016.

Kohl’s and Walmart settled lawsuits in April of this year after both companies were accused of marketing bamboo clothing as eco-friendly. Turning bamboo into a fabric produces harmful chemicals and other pollutants, according to the respective judgments.

McDonald’s and Burger King have cases pending against them both for misleading customers over the sustainability of their food. Whole Foods and Red Lobster are also facing lawsuits related to deceptive marketing practices connected with eco-pledges.

A long list of popular brands accused of greenwashing consumers can be found here.

Coca-Cola is also being sued by the Earth Island Institute for claiming to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. The California-based organization provides support to environmental action groups.

But here’s the thing, Coca-Cola is the world’s worst plastic polluter, alongside Pepsi, according to a 2021 report the from international climate group Break Free From Plastic.

However, the company’s greenwashing goes beyond alleged deceptive practices.

By placing its green credentials in the recycling process rather than finding a greener alternative to plastic, like the widespread use of aluminum or glass, Coca-Cola is burdening the consumer to clean up a problem the company has helped create over decades.

But most plastic is not recycled.

According to Environmental Protection Agency data, less than 30% of plastic is recycled annually in the United States. In fact, over the last 40 years, just 10% of plastic has been recycled, per the EPA’s decades of research. Most plastics are combusted or thrown in landfills.

But the climate problems attached to Coca-Cola’s plastic products are not just rooted in recycling; the problem starts with the intense energy process needed to make a plastic bottle.

Before a plastic bottle is manufactured and filled with soda, it begins life as petroleum or natural gas, extracted from the ground by oil companies like Exxon and Shell. It then undergoes several energy-intensive processes before becoming a bottle.

Around 100 billion plastic bottles are produced by beverage companies in the U.S. each year, roughly 3,000 a second. Globally, Coca-Cola manufactures 125 billion plastic bottles a year.

According to a Harvard sustainability study, producing each plastic bottle is equivalent to filling a quarter of a plastic bottle with petroleum.

So, is taking the green out of Sprite bottles the green solution we need to deal with our plastic pollution pandemic? Unlikely.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.