Top brands named worst offenders for plastic pollution

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Four of the world's biggest food manufacturers have been accused of excessive plastic pollution
Four of the world's biggest food manufacturers have been accused of excessive plastic pollution

Related tags Packaging

Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Unilever and PepsiCo are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution burnt or dumped in just six developing countries, according to a report from non-governmental organisation Tearfund.

Part of the organisation’s ‘Rubbish Campaign’, the report found Coca-Cola to be the worst offender with 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution burnt or dumped in the developing countries – Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines.

The total plastic burnt from the four companies is equivalent to about 4.6m tonnes of CO2​, the same as 2m cars on UK roads a year, claimed Tearfund.

Tearfund director of global advocacy and influencing Dr Ruth Valerio accused the companies of selling plastic with the full knowledge it would be burnt or dumped in developing countries, contributing to climate change and harming the health of some of the world’s poorest people.

“At present, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever make little or no mention of emissions from the disposal of their products or packaging in their climate change commitments,”​ she added. “These companies have a moral responsibility for the disposal of the products they continue to pump into developing countries without proper waste management systems.”

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet said the report highlighted the immorality of big consumer brands pushing plastic to developing countries, which often had little infrastructure to deal with the waste those products created.

Undeniable affect on human health​’

“We must ask ourselves why is this any different to shipping our own plastic waste to these countries apart from the fact we are disguising it as ‘giving people choice to buy our products’?” ​Sutherland asked. “The impact of plastic on human health is now undeniable and is seen first-hand in communities who live on the world’s waste.

“We can no longer pretend making something recyclable is acceptable when such a tiny fraction of the world’s plastic is ever recycled. Refill and reuse models are the future. This is the time to respect and value nature more than any other – destroying our ecosystem for profit has to stop.”

The Real Circularity Coalition – a group of businesses, NGOs and individuals promoting a circular supply chain – said the statistics suggested a collective blind spot in the way waste was approached, one that is being exploited by some of the biggest brands.

Chair Lucy Siegle added: “Uncontrolled plastic waste directly impacts nature and climate. It makes our ecosystems less resilient and drives us towards catastrophic collapse.

“At this point, as the world battles a global pandemic, we demand that brands address their levels of plastic waste, invest transparently in workable solutions and stop trying to burn the evidence.”

Coca-cola said it had been in dialogue with Tearfund and was aware that its new report had rasied some serious concerns. It recognised that it had a responsibility to provide solutions than make plastic waste a thing of the past”.

According to a spokesman for the drinks giant: ​As part of our World Without Waste goals, we have committed to collecting a bottle or can for each one sold by 2030, with the aim to ensure that every plastic bottle contains at least 50% recycled plastic by 2030.

​We believe that plastic still has a role to play as a valuable resource which can be used again and again.

Responding to the report, Nestlé said it highlighted the continued challenges society faced in tackling the issue of packaging and plastic waste. The manufacturer said it was committed look at every option to solve the complex challenges of packaging waste.

“To address the global issue of plastic packaging waste effectively, we must work collaboratively with industry, local and national governments, civil society and consumers,”​ said a Nestlé spokesman. “As part of this approach, Nestlé will take an active role in the development of well-functioning collection, sorting and recycling schemes across the countries where we operate.

Nestlé pointed out that successful recycling required an adequate infrastructure, which was currently not always in place.

“We have identified 17 ‘first mover’ countries where we are focusing efforts to increase recycling rates, and a further 12 countries where we are focusing on achieving plastics neutrality,”​ the spokesman added. “The exact nature and scope of the role we play will depend on the local context.

“The project aims to eliminate the leakage of plastics into the environment and to increase recycling rates by developing partnerships with city and district governments to create effective circular systems.

A Unilever spokesman said the manufacturer was taking radical action at all points in the ‘plastic loop’.

Critical part of the solution

“Plastic reduction is a critical part of the solution, and so we’ve committed to halve our use of virgin plastic in our packaging in just five years and reduce our total use of plastic by more than 100,000 tonnes,”​ said the spokesman.

“This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to packaging and products, and as we speak, we’re piloting different reuse and refill formats across the world, so we can test, learn and scale these solutions.”

Unilever restated its commitment to collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells by 2025 and pledged to work with governments, NGOs and local community groups to keep plastic in the economy and out of rivers, streets and oceans.

A PepsiCo spokesman said that the issue of single use plastic was one that required immediate and collective action.

At PepsiCo, we want to help build a system where packaging never becomes waste. That’s why we’re working to reduce the amount of plastics we use and have set a target to, by 2025, decrease virgin plastic content across our beverage business by 35%,” ​they added.

“We recognize that no single organization or industry can solve this challenge on their own. We aim to leverage our scale and reach to accelerate systemic change and meaningful progress through collaborative, holistic solutions.”

Meanwhile, recyclable and refillable packaging have been named as two trends to watch in 2020.

Related topics Drinks Packaging & Labelling

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