A new study has revealed for the first time the “hidden plastic pollution footprint” of four of the world’s biggest consumer brands.
The new report from International relief and development agency Tearfund, claims consumer brands Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution that is burnt or dumped per year in just six developing countries.
It says the plastic that is burnt creates emissions equivalent to 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 – the same as 2 million cars on UK roads a year.
Coca-Cola was found to be the worst of the four companies investigated, with 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution – or around 8 billion bottles – burnt or dumped each year in these developing countries.
PepsiCo was found to be the second worst after Coca-Cola, with a plastic pollution footprint of 137,000 tonnes per year.
Tearfund says the emissions produced from the open burning of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever’s plastic packaging on street corners, open dumps and in backyards in developing countries is a “major contribution to the climate emergency”.
The findings, part of the organisation’s Rubbish Campaign, targeting the four global companies, show that they must “urgently switch to sustainable refillable and reusable packaging alternatives” instead of single-use plastic packaging and sachets, Tearfund says.
These companies are selling plastic in the full knowledge that it will be burnt or dumped in developing countries: scarring landscapes, contributing to climate change and harming the health of the world’s poorest people
Dr Ruth Valerio, director of global advocacy and influencing at Tearfund, said: “These companies are selling plastic in the full knowledge that it will be burnt or dumped in developing countries: scarring landscapes, contributing to climate change and harming the health of the world’s poorest people.”
Tearfund is the first NGO to quantify the link between the burning and dumping of plastic in developing countries from multinationals and climate change.
The research focussed on plastic pollution in six developing countries – Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines.
Dr Valerio added: “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.
“These companies have a moral responsibility for the disposal of the products they continue to pump into developing countries without proper waste management systems.”
The report also sets out what it calls “the scale of demand for change” from consumers in developing countries: in a new survey of 2,000 adults aged between 18 to 64 in India conducted for Tearfund by Savanta ComRes, nine in ten (90%) respondents said they would be likely to buy their products in refillable and reusable containers as opposed to throwaway containers if it led to significantly less plastic pollution in their community and the cost was the same.
Since May 2019, Tearfund’s Rubbish Campaign has been challenging each company with a four-point plan to step up the pace to take responsibility for their plastic pollution.
Tearfund has ranked how well the companies are doing in committing to this plan. This league table reveals that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are “barely off the starting blocks”, with Unilever far ahead, it says.
Listen to this episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘Costing The Earth’, which focuses on The Burning Question.
Nestle said the “The Burning Question report by Tearfund highlights the continued challenges we face as a society, in tackling the issue of packaging and plastic waste.
“Nestlé is determined to look at every option to solve the complex challenges of packaging waste. We embrace multiple solutions that can have an impact now for our consumers and communities.”
A Unilever spokesperson said: “We believe plastic has its place in delivering products safely and efficiently to consumers around the world. But the place for plastic is not in the environment.
“Our plastic is our responsibility and that’s why we are taking radical action at all points in the plastic loop.”
PepsiCo said they will continue to tackle plastic pollution and pledge $51 million to global partnerships designed to boost recycling rates.
They say they have also reinvented the packaging they use by looking beyond the bottle through reusable platforms like SodaStream.
“We aim to leverage our scale and reach to accelerate systemic change and meaningful progress through collaborative, holistic solutions,” a spokesperson said.
The company says plastic still has a role to play as a valuable resource which can be used again and again but are focused on removing it where possible.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson, said: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring the packaging in which we serve our products is sustainable and our efforts are focused on continuing to improve the eco-design and innovation of our packaging.
“As part of a number of global commitments, we have committed to getting every bottle back for each one sold by 2030, with the aim to ensure that every plastic bottle contains at least 50% recycled plastic by 2030.
“As we work towards a circular packaging economy, collecting and recycling everything we use, including working with the informal waste-picking sector in many of the countries referenced, we are ultimately working towards the elimination of virgin oil-based plastics from our bottles.”