Drinks companies pumping plastics into developing countries, says report

Four consumer brands are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution each year in just six developing countries, according to a new report. 

Published on Tuesday (31 March), the report produced by international relief and development agency Tearfund examines the plastic pollution footprint of four multinational companies and calls for an urgent switch to sustainable refillable and reusable packaging.

Titled ‘The Burning Question’, as part of Tearfund’s Rubbish Campaign, the study considers the emissions released from the open burning of consumer brands Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever’s plastic packaging on street corners, open dumps and in backyards in developing countries.

Burning waste in Tanzania.
Burning plastic waste at a dump in Tanzania.
The report claims this burning of plastic waste, due to the lack of access to waste collections, is a major contribution to the climate emergency and to public health.

Six developing countries – Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines – were considered within the report. Daily, in these countries, the extent of plastic pollution the four multinational companies create are equivalent to 83 football pitches of plastic pollution, 33 attributable to Coca-Cola, 15 Nestlé, 22 PepsiCo and 11 to Unilever.

What are the effects on the environment?

The report considers the rising greenhouse gas emissions attributable to these multinational companies; the plastic burnt creates emissions equivalent to 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 – the same as two million cars on UK roads a year.

Coca-Cola was found to be the worst polluter of the four companies investigated with 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution – or around eight billion bottles – burnt or dumped each year in these developing countries.

Manufacturing of plastics is both energy and emissions intensive, releasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) and black carbon into the atmosphere – it is intrinsically connected to the climate crisis. Further emissions are generated by burning plastic and some evidence shows leaving plastics to break down in the environment produces methane and ethylene as well. The study finds Coca-Cola is more heavily dependent on PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)
plastic, which during burning releases more black carbon than other types of plastic packaging.

What are the effects on health?

Royda, who has three children and lives near the Tanzanian dump Pugu-Kinyamwez, has spoken to Tearfund about her experiences and health fears for the future: “The dump is on fire every two days. Sometimes, when it is on fire, the smoke is so dark and huge that you can’t see the person in front of you or the house next to you. Because of that smoke, I get breathing problems and coughing, and eye problems too. The kids also get a lot of breathing problems: they cough a lot. When it is really bad, there is no way that you can deal with it without going to the hospital. The smoke and the fire come when the weather is very dry and the gases are coming out of the fire. I am worried about my children’s health because when it is very dry, the smoke always comes. I am sure in the long run they will develop health complications.”

Commenting on the dump in her locality, Midwife Rene Kanyugwa said: “There are different types of problems here because of the dump. Especially when the fire comes, some people around here get a heart attack, some get asthma. People often get asthma because of the smoke. Sometimes pneumonia, cough and flu”.

What does Tearfund recommend?

Tearfund urges the four companies to make a rapid switch to sustainable refillable and reusable packaging alternatives instead of single-use plastic packaging and sachets.

Tearfund is pressing for reuse rather than recycling of packaging. As reuse sits higher up on the waste hierarchy, more of the value and natural resources are preserved from each bottle.

A waste picker in Tanzania.
Furthermore, Tearfund acknowledges many low-income countries have a lower capacity to recycle, without suitable waste management systems and infrastructure.

90 percent of 2,000 adults aged between 18 to 64 in India 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.

Tearfund states Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever should:

  • Report by 2020 on the number of units and volume of single-use plastic products they use and sell in each country;
  • Reduce this amount by half, country by country, by 2025 and instead use environmentally sustainable delivery methods such as refillable or reusable containers;
  • Recycle the single-use plastics they sell in low- and middle-income countries, ensuring that by 2022 one is collected for every one sold, as part of adequate systems for collection, reuse, recycling and composting in communities that currently lack these systems;
  • Restore dignity through working in partnership with waste pickers to create safe jobs. Around the world, there are numerous examples of companies partnering with waste pickers to establish collection and recycling systems that are good for society and the environment; and
  • Reimagine the way their products are delivered. Innovate and explore business models that won’t harm people, the earth or the ocean.

Commenting on the data from the report, Director of Global Advocacy Dr Ruth Valerio 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.

“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.”

Chair of the Real Circularity Coalition Lucy Siegle saaddedid: "These deeply worrying statistics suggest a collective blindspot in our approach to waste, one that is seemingly exploited by the world's major brands.

"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."

A Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland reflected: “An excellent study from Tearfund highlighting the absolute immorality of big consumer brands pushing plastic to developing countries with little infrastructure to deal with the waste these products create.

“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 the choice to buy our products.

“Plastic and the thousands of chemicals used to make it are toxic to our air, water and soil. 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.

“Surely we realise now one man’s trash is everybody’s future health problem. This is the time to respect and value nature more than any other. Destroying our ecosystem for profit has to stop.”

Growing concern

The impact of mismanaged waste in developing countries has become a chief concern in recent times. Last May, a report titled ‘No time to waste: Tackling the plastic pollution crisis before it’s too late’ was released by a group of charities working across the intersection of international aid and environmental conservation. It examined the impact of plastic pollution on poorer communities around the world and called for producers of plastic waste to take action to reduce their single-use waste.

Meanwhile, a report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Greenpeace, entitled ‘Discarded: Communities on the frontlines of the global plastic crisis’, brought the impact of China’s waste ban on communities in Southeast Asia into stark relief. With the plastic waste export route to China closed, many waste exporters from Western countries diverted their materials to countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia, flooding communities under a wave of plastic.

Steps have been taken to rectify this under growing public pressure, with the UK Government’s Environment Bill, which passed its second reading in February, including a commitment to ban the export of plastic waste to developing countries.

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