World’s biggest plastic polluters named and shamed in new report

The world’s biggest plastic polluters have been called out in a new report from The Changing Markets Foundation.

Released today (17 September), ‘Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions’ accuses big plastic polluters of obstructing and undermining legislative solutions to the plastics crisis for the past few decades.

Coca-Cola bottles washed up on the shoreWith research in over 15 countries that spanned five continents, Talking Trash analysed the top ten biggest plastic polluters: Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Perfetti Van Melle, Procter and Gamble, and Unilever.

The top polluters was Coca-Cola, which had a plastic footprint of 2.9 million tonnes per year, followed by PepsiCo (2.3 million tonnes) and Nestlé (1.7 million tonnes).

It claims that the voluntary commitments and group initiatives these companies are committed to are used to distract consumers and governments, enabling polluters to continue making decisions solely for larger profit margins regardless of environmental consequences.

The report also implies that plastic producers have even utilised the Covid-19 pandemic and the public's fear of catching the virus, as an opportunity to call for regulatory rollbacks and delays on legislation to restrict single-use, despite there being little evidence to suggest single-use plastic is safer to use during the pandemic.

Talking Trash lists numerous recommendations on how these companies should move forward in proving a dedication to dealing with the plastic crisis.

These include the introduction of legislation that mandates at least 90 per cent separate collection of plastic waste, the inclusion of reuse targets to encourage greater rates of reuse and refill and the implementation of minimum recycled-content targets to create a circular economy.

Voluntary initiatives not enough

As well as the brands, Talking Trash also investigated the most prominent group initiatives, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that these companies have signed up to.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the UK Plastics Pact that involved a range of businesses from across industry commiting to eliminating unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025.

The report calls out companies for using initiatives to appear to be part of the solution and then opposing and lobbying to delay progressive legislation to tackle the plastics crisis behind closed doors, laying the blame instead on individuals for littering.

According to the report, Coca-Cola is committed to 10 voluntary initiatives to solve plastic waste while at the same time is also a member of at least seven trade associations that lobbied against deposit return systems (DRS) or other legislation to regulate single-use plastic.

It has furthermore resisted In 1990, for example, the company committed to having 25 per cent recycled content in its bottles, but 30 years later it is only at 10 per cent.

At the same time, the company has strongly opposed progressive legislation that would help them to achieve these commitments. An example of this was Coca-Cola being against a DRS in Scotland until it U-turned in 2017 following the leak of internal documents.

The Talking Trash report found that it is still lobbying against similar legislation in Kenya, the Chinese province of Hainan, and the US state of Georgia.

The report also criticised the voluntary initiatives themselves for focusing on temporary solutions, such as clean-ups, products’ recyclability or biodegradability, rather than thinking in the long term.

Companies also tend to rely on problematic solutions, such as bio-based plastics or chemical recycling, rather than upstream design changes or waste reduction plans.

Solutions, such as mandatory collection of packaging, policies to increase reuse and phase out certain problematic plastic types or products, rarely feature in the voluntary approach and are fought against, if proposed by policy-makers.

‘Two-faced hypocrisy of plastic polluters’

Levels of plastic in the environment continue to increase at an alarming rate, with 8-12 million tonnes already entering the ocean each year and data warning that ocean plastic could triple by 2040. The ocean is already being impacted by plastic consumption, in 2017 microplastics were found in the stomachs of organisms living in the deepest trenches in the Pacific Ocean reaching 10,890 metres deep.

As well as damaging the natural environment, recent research has shown the detrimental impact microplastics can have on human immunity.

Nusa Urbancic, Campaigns Director at the Changing Markets Foundation, said: “This report exposes the two-faced hypocrisy of plastic polluters, which claim to be committed to solutions, but at the same time use a host of dirty tricks to ensure that they can continue pumping out cheap, disposable plastic, polluting the planet at a devastating rate.

“Plastic is now pouring into the natural world at a rate of one garbage truck a minute, creating a crisis for wildlife, the climate and public health. The responsibility for this disaster lies with Big Plastic – including major household brands – which have lobbied against progressive legislation for decades, greenwashed their environmental credentials and blamed the public for littering, rather than assuming responsibility for their own actions.”

Natalie Fee, Founder of City to Sea, added: “This report gives us further evidence that the real battle lies not just in changing the public’s attitude towards single-use plastic, but in highlighting the truth behind vested corporate interests and how the industry actively undermines attempts to tackle the ecological crisis we face.”

Christy Leavitt, Plastics Campaign Director at ocean conversation organisation Oceana, added: “This eye-opening report removes the veil companies have long used to hide the truth and protect their own interests. The plastics industry has spent decades blaming consumers for the plastic pollution problem and pointing to false solutions to distract us from one irrefutable fact: The only way to mitigate this crisis is for companies to stop producing so much unnecessary plastic. We know that 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year, choking, entangling or otherwise impacting marine animals around the globe. This report brings into focus the strategic ways companies have avoided taking responsibility for the plastic waste they create and the lengths they'll go to prevent policies to reduce single-use plastic that our blue planet so desperately needs. We have no more time to waste. We need all levels of government to pass comprehensive policies that tackle plastic pollution at the source, before it's too late.”

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