Tired of potato chip wrappers and other single-use plastic waste clogging streams, littering public spaces and creating air pollution when burned, the city of Baltimore has gone to court to ask for relief.

City officials and their lawyers claim global beverage giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, along with six other companies, used deceptive business practices and created a public nuisance, while causing harm to people’s health and the environment, according to a lawsuit they filed late last week.

In doing so, Baltimore has added to a surge of plastics litigation amid a rapidly expanding body of knowledge detailing how burgeoning production and ineffective waste management damage the planet and threaten public health. The Baltimore suit, among the first of its kind for a U.S. city, claims the companies knew that discarded plastic would litter streets and contaminate waterways but instead left the cleanup responsibility and costs, in the tens of millions of dollars annually, to the local government.

The suit cites toxic air emissions from the much-fought-over, privately owned trash incinerator in Westport, where the city sends much of its waste to be burned.

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Officials are working to make Baltimore “a greener, more resilient city” and “one that prioritizes the health of our residents,” Mayor Brandon M. Scott said in a press release. “But when bad corporate actors have harmed our city’s land and water, they must be held accountable, and that’s what this suit is designed to do.”

PepsiCo and Coca-Cola did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

But earlier this month, a PepsiCo representative provided a statement to Inside Climate News about similar plastic waste litigation in which the corporation is a defendant.

“Packaging waste is a serious issue that requires collaboration from many stakeholders,” the spokesperson said. “PepsiCo is focused on being part of the solution and is pursuing goals to improve and enhance recycling programs.”

Other companies that Baltimore is suing include W.R. Grace, a Maryland-based company that makes chemicals used in plastics manufacturing, and Frito-Lay, a Texas-based subsidiary of PepsiCo.

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W.R. Grace also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in financial compensation and punitive damages, including the costs to the city of “cleaning up and disposing of defendants’ litter, past, present, and future.”

A plastics litigation tracker affiliated with the New York University School of Law has counted more than 60 lawsuits filed since 2015 in state or federal courts.

Plaintiffs have included individuals as well as environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Earth Island Institute. More recently, governments have begun to take plastic makers or companies that use plastic packaging to court. Some have cited the Clean Water Act, but often plaintiffs file their challenges based on public-nuisance or false-claims laws.

Baltimore’s plastic waste litigation follows an earlier lawsuit the city filed in late 2022 to hold six cigarette manufacturers responsible for tens of millions of littered cigarette filters, which are made of plastic fibers.

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That lawsuit is still making its way through the court system. A federal judge recently returned the case to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, where it had been originally filed. The new case is in the same venue.

The litigation filed last week “is the result of a misguided policy by the plastic manufacturers” in which they decided they could save money by making single-use bottles and packaging and then allowing their products to be littered, said Annapolis attorney Roy Mason, whose firm, Smouse & Mason, is among those representing Baltimore in the new lawsuit and the cigarette filter case.

Plastic wrappers and bottles are breaking down into microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics that are getting into the city’s water supply. That puts Baltimore residents at risk of ingesting toxic chemicals found in plastics and getting sick, the lawsuit claims.

The 71-page lawsuit notes that some plastic waste in Baltimore gets burned at the WIN Waste incinerator off Interstate 95, a longtime source of toxic air emissions.

The waste-to-energy incinerator itself and its contractual relationship to the city were recently the subject of a federal civil rights complaint filed by environmental justice advocates with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Inside Climate News reported in May that environmental advocates contend that the city’s failure to move away from trash incineration violates federal civil rights law by disproportionately harming Hispanic and Black residents in the area.

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The city did not create the problem of widespread plastic waste and has “no choice but to try to dispose of these products in the best way that they can,” within budget, Mason said when asked about the incinerator.

In the plastics lawsuit, the city claims that the companies created a “false narrative” around the effectiveness of plastics recycling.

It cites a February 2024 report by the Center for Climate Integrity that “details the expansive history of lies and deceit engaged in by the oil and plastics industries to cover up the truth about plastics’ danger to the environment and to the public health, in order to maintain the ability to manufacture and sell the products to residents of cities like Baltimore.”

The lawsuit describes plastic litter as “toxic” and its accumulation as a “nuisance epidemic.”

“Every community has the same problem,” Mason said Monday in an interview. “It’s just that Baltimore is one of the first cities to file a lawsuit to try to make the originators of this pay the price” of cleaning up and preventing plastic waste pollution.

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“We hope this litigation will inspire other cities to pursue similar litigation,” Mason said.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.