Twelve companies responsible for 65 per cent of UK packaging pollution

Sixty-five per cent of pollution from branded packaging in the UK can be attributed to 12 companies, according to research carried out by Surfers Against Sewage.

The ocean conservation charity released its annual Citizen Science Brand Audit earlier this week, exposing the following businesses as the biggest culprits of packaging pollution: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, McDonalds, Mondelez International, Heineken, Tesco, Carlsberg Group, Suntory, Haribo, Mars and Aldi. The report also disclosed, alongside the parent companies listed, the 10 most polluting food and drink brands in the country, which includes Walkers, McDonalds and Cadbury in its lineup.

Surfers Against Sewage chart
Surfers Against Sewage chart depicting 12 biggest branded packaging pollutors
The audit notes Coca-Cola as the biggest contributor to packaging pollution, with their branded products being recovered three times more often than other brands during the audit. It also cites the pandemic as having a significant impact on the type and volume of packaging recovered during the audit. Anheuser-Busch InBev, parent company to Stella Artois and Budweiser, was noted as the third most polluting company in this year’s audit, jumping from eighth the year prior, which Surfers Against Sewage attributes to the closure of pubs, bars and restaurants across consecutive lockdowns.

In total, approximately 9,998 items of branded packaging were collected in the audit, which were traced back to 328 individual companies. It formed part of the charity’s Million Mile Clean initiative, which tasked 3,913 volunteers with the collection of branded items across 11,139 miles.

To underscore the ecological damage caused by this branded packaging pollution, the charity has erected an art installation at Watergate Bay, Cornwall, which depicts an industrial pipe spilling discarded plastic onto the beach. The charity is also calling on the offending companies to ‘turn off the tap’ in reference to branded packaging making its way into the ocean stream.

Additionally, Surfers Against Sewage is appealing for the companies listed in the audit to reduce the amount of packaging they use and to switch to refill models. It is also urging the Government to implement Deposit Return Schemes (DRS) that encompass drinks containers of all sizes and materials to help assuage the amount of branded bottles and cans discarded. Such schemes would see consumers put a deposit down on a container, to be redeemed once the drinking vessel is returned to a collection point. The audit estimates that 52 per cent of the pollution caused by the 12 listed companies would be captured by a fully functioning DRS, including 80 per cent of packaging from the largest polluter, Coca-Cola.

Surfers Against Sewage is calling for government action in the form of ‘legislation that ends the production and consumption of non-essential single-use polluting plastics’, as well as legislation that ‘ensures effective resource use and waste management’ in order to reduce branded packaging pollution. The charity also asks corporations to incorporate ‘business models within companies that are focused on reduction and reuse’, leading a shift away from ‘traditional recycling models and towards reduction and alternative use for single use plastics’ in order to help lessen their contributions to this form of pollution.

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, commented: “Our annual Brand Audit has once again revealed the shocking volume of plastic and packaging pollution coming directly from big companies and some of their best-known brands. Serial offenders including Coca-Cola – which tops the leaderboard year on year as the worst offender – are still not taking responsibility. Legislation such as an ‘all-in’ deposit scheme needs to be introduced urgently and governments need to hold these companies to account and turn off the tap of plastic and packaging pollution flooding the ocean.”

He added: “Despite the surge in single-use plastic as a result of the pandemic, PPE made up just 2.5 per cent of unbranded plastic pollution recorded during our latest Brand Audit. We cannot allow polluting industries to use the current health crisis to deflect from their own damaging behaviours and put the blame on the individual – we must demand action now.”

Brendan Godley, Chair in Conservation Science and Exeter Marine Strategy Lead, said: “Plastic packaging is polluting the ocean, impacting marine species and destroying habitats. The findings of Surfers Against Sewage’s Beach Brand Audit highlight the types of pollution that are escaping into the marine environment and the brands that are responsible. I believe that this kind of work is critically important in order to urge companies to urgently reduce their packaging pollution before it is too late.”