In an annual audit by Break Free From Plastic, Coca-Cola has been ranked the world’s No 1 plastic polluter after its beverage bottles were the most frequently discarded on beaches, rivers, parks, and other litter sites in 51 of 55 nations surveyed. In 2019, it was the most commonly littered bottle in 37 countries, out of 51 surveyed.
Coca-Cola was found to be worse than PepsiCo and Nestlé combined: its branding was found on 13,834 pieces of plastic, with PepsiCo branding on 5,155 and Nestlé on 8,633.
The Perils of Plastic Pollution: Can We Make a Difference?
The annual audit, carried out by 15,000 volunteers worldwide, names the largest number of plastic products from global brands found in most countries. In 2020, volunteers collected 346,494 pieces of plastic waste, 63% marked with an identifiable consumer brand.
After announcing it would not abandon plastic bottles, Coca-Cola came under attack from environmental campaigners earlier this year, claiming they were popular with customers. In a survey by NGO Tearfund in March, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever were responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in six developing countries.
According to Emma Priestland, Break Free From Plastic’s global campaign coordinator, "The world’s top polluting corporations claim to be working hard to solve plastic pollution, but instead, they are continuing to pump out harmful single-use plastic packaging."
Priestland found that the most effective way to curb the growing global tide of plastic litter was to halt production, phase out single-use, and establish reuse systems.
According to a 2017 study, upwards of 91% of all plastic waste generated has never been recycled and is incinerated in landfill or the natural environment.
“Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé should be leading the way in finding real solutions to reinvent how they deliver their products,” Priestland affirms.
The global audit found that single-use sachets used for smaller volume products like ketchup, coffee, and shampoo were the most commonly found type of item, followed by cigarette butts and then plastic bottles.
“The majority of plastic we come across cannot be recycled. We find it everywhere, in our waste stream, on our land. When it is buried, it contaminates our soil. Whatever cannot be recycled must not be produced,” according to Simon Mbata, national coordinator of the South African Waste Pickers Association.
Coca-Cola has claimed it is addressing packaging waste in partnership with other companies and refutes the idea that it is making no progress.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “Globally, we have a commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, so that none of it ends up as litter or in the oceans, and the plastic can be recycled into new bottles. Bottles with 100% recycled plastic are now available in 18 markets around the world, and this is continually growing.”
Nestlé said the company was making “meaningful progress” in sustainable packaging. However, it recognizes more is needed: “We are intensifying our actions to make 100% of our packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 and to reduce our use of virgin plastics by one-third in the same period. So far, 87% of our total packaging and 66% of our plastic packaging is recyclable or reusable."
PepsiCo's spokesperson said the company was working to address packaging through “partnership, innovation, and investments." PepsiCo said it had set plastic reduction goals “including decreasing virgin plastic in our beverage business by 35% by 2025” and was also “growing refill and reuse through businesses like SodaStream. SodaStream Professional, which we expect will avoid 67bn single-use plastic bottles through 2025."
The company claims that it has committed more than $65m since 2018 by investing in partnerships to increase recycling infrastructure and collection.