“Recycling won’t solve this problem”: Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo named world’s worst plastic polluters
Break Free From Plastic report calls for more focus on plastic reduction and reusable packaging
28 Oct 2019 --- Following 484 cleanups in over 50 countries across six continents, a new report has named Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo as the world’s “top polluting companies.” The Break Free From Plastic report also blasts the FMCG heavyweights for only offering “false solutions to the plastic pollution crisis they have created.” Essentially, recycling will not solve the issue, and making a product recyclable doesn’t mean that it will be recycled, nor will it remove the adverse human health impacts of the chemicals in plastics, warns the group – which is comprised of more than 1,800 organizations.
The rest of the companies rounding out the top ten polluters are Mondelēz International, Unilever, Mars, P&G, Colgate-Palmolive, Phillip Morris, and Perfetti Van Melle. Such companies rely on plastic as a cheap material to package and transport goods around the economy, without having to pay for its collection or disposal, notes the report. The top three most common plastic items found were plastic bags, sachets and plastic bottles.
The report marks the second analysis from Break Free from Plastic. Last year, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé also topped the list.
“The commitments companies have made so far are unlikely to change their status as top plastic polluters. The report clearly explains why recycling will not solve the problem, but so far all these companies are still focusing on it and none of them have committed to reducing the amount of single-use plastic they use or invested enough in reusable packaging systems,” Emma Priestland, the Corporate Campaign Coordinator for Break Free From Plastic, tells PackagingInsights.
25 percent recycled marine plastic retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea and beaches. Meanwhile Nestlé pledged in 2018 to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2025, with a particular focus on avoiding plastic waste. PepsiCo also recently announced a new target to reduce 35 percent of virgin plastic content across its beverage portfolio by 2025.The top three companies under heat from Break Free From Plastic have made some seemingly hardline commitments around their use of plastic. Recently, Coca-Cola unveiled a plastic bottle including
But Break Free from Plastics has branded such announcements as “just a distraction from the real solution.”
Reusable packaging is the only way to reduce the serious environmental and social damage caused by plastic, notes Priestland. “It’s not just ocean plastic pollution that’s the problem, the production of plastic causes major problems too, plus there is a growing body of evidence around how the chemicals in plastic are affecting us. Reusable packaging is not new, we need large companies to innovate to use it at scale.”
Indeed, the recent Plastic Health Summit held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, pinpointed a range of ways in which plastic is negatively impacting human health. One example shared detailed how the extraction and transport of fossil feedstocks for plastic releases an array of toxic substances into the air and water, while other toxic metals are released in most plastic waste management technologies (incineration, co-incineration, gasification and pyrolysis).
As Priestland says, innovation focus should be bringing reusable solutions to scale. Break Free From Plastic also demands that the corporations reveal their plastic footprint, alongside reducing the plastic they produce and reinventing their packaging to be reusable.
“For years, the plastic industry has worked tirelessly to promote the idea that if only we just recycled better, we would solve the problem of plastic pollution. Unfortunately, recycling as the solution just isn’t true,” reads the report.
This is a view echoed by Michael Lenaghan, Zero Waste Scotland Environmental Policy Advisor, who tells PackagingInsights that recycling should be seen as the “last resort” in the drive for increased sustainability in packaging. Lenaghan likewise advocates reusable packaging models.
Also, amid moves to increase the recyclability of products, what often does not hit the headlines is how the production of plastics continues to increase. Much of this plastic boom will be used to make single-use packaging to be placed on the market in the fast-growing economies of Asia and Africa.
Furthermore, the moves companies are making toward chemical recycling are a “major step in the wrong direction.” The report brands the technology as unproven and extremely energy-intensive. “It would be impossible to collect all the single-use packaging being produced and get it to one of these plants, and the approach ignores the need to move beyond throwaway packaging altogether.”
Despite these reservations, investment has been funneling into this space. Earlier this year, Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe have joined a consortium that seeks to bring enhanced polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling technology to market on an industrial scale. Also, Dow has partnered with Netherlands-based Feunix Ecogy Group to produce 100 percent circular plastic through chemical recycling.
Reaching zero waste
The report delineates that “real solutions must change systems and power structures.”
“While individuals play an important role in paving the way for these changes, individuals cannot solve the plastic problem alone – that takes community. And zero waste communities have been showing the way towards the proper and safe management of discarded waste, highlighting as well the problematic materials that could not be managed and should, therefore, be taken out of commerce,” the report reads.
It goes on to detail zero waste city solutions in several locations. In Latin America, plastic has been banned around the world-famous Atitlán Lake in Guatemala, while the African continent is currently the global leader in plastic bag regulations with 34 countries that have adopted nationwide taxes or bans on single-use plastic bags. Other examples include RECUP, a German country-wide deposit system working to “make disposable cups disappear” with coffee-to-go reusable cups and extended producer responsibility solutions in South Asia. The solution in Kerala India, saw one local NGO Thanal audit 75 households for three weeks and present the data to the municipal authorities to demand the top polluting brands set up alternative delivery systems. And they listened.
Priestland also notes that smaller companies are leading the way in many cases, by innovating new, environmentally friendly ways to get their products to their customers. TerraCycle, for example, has reworked the typical model of commerce and introduced Loop for online groceries, which uses reusable packaging to deliver food products. It has attracted a host of big-time brands such as PepsiCo, Unilever and Mondelēz International.
“Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and their production and disposal release huge amounts of greenhouse gasses. Reducing plastic use is part of the climate crisis solution. All around the world, millions of people are coming together to demand change, this is the moment that we can work to create a better and cleaner future,” she says.
Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo respond
PackagingInsights reached out to the top companies named in the report.
A PepsiCo spokesperson says: “Changing the way society makes, uses and disposes of packaging is a complex challenge and we’re playing our part. We want to help build a system where plastic packaging never becomes waste. We’re committed to reducing 35 percent of virgin plastic content across our beverage portfolio and making all our packaging 100 percent recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025.”
A Coca-Cola spokesperson says: “At a global level, we are part of key coalitions that work together to clean up plastic pollution. We co-founded the World Economic Forum Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), a collaboration with government and stakeholders in coastal economies to address plastic waste, with specific programs launched in Indonesia, Vietnam and Ghana to date. We are also part of the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter and alongside key industry partners, invested US$15 million in Circulate Capital, an impact-investment firm aiming to keep plastic waste out of the world’s oceans. In 2018, we set out our company vision for a World Without Waste.”
A Nestlé spokesperson says: “The latest Break Free From Plastic report highlights the continued challenges we face as a society. We know we have an important role to play in shaping sustainable solutions to tackle the issue of plastics waste. We make some of the most well-known food and drink brands in the world and many of them are packaged with plastic in the interests of freshness, affordability and safety. It is completely unacceptable for that packaging to end up as litter in the environment and we are working hard to make all of our packaging either recyclable or reusable by 2025. We also want to find ways to fundamentally change the way consumers receive and enjoy our products. For example, we are rolling out the subscription home delivery service LOOP, in countries where it is available.”
By Laxmi Haigh
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