A report has emerged claiming that the world’s four largest beverage manufacturers are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in just six countries alone; enough to cover 83 football fields each day.
The numbers come from NGO Tearfund who looked at the greenhouse emissions from the burning of plastic bottles, cartons and sachets produced by Nestle, Unilever, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, reporting that 4.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide - equivalent to 2 million cars on the road - reaches the atmosphere each year.
Tearfund looked at plastic pollution in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines because they are large, developing nations scattered across three continents.
The Guardian is reporting that “the sachets, bottles, and cartons sold in these countries often end up either being burned or dumped - creating a pollution problem equivalent to 83 football pitches with plastic 10 centimetres deep each day.”
The report states that “this massive plastic pollution footprint, while a crisis in and of itself, is also contributing to the climate crisis.” The NGO also mentioned the fact that the companies in question made no reference to the emissions from the disposal of their products, or the packaging process.
“These companies continue to sell billions of products in single-use bottles, sachets and packets in developing countries,” the report reads. “And they do this despite knowing that: waste isn’t properly managed in these contexts; their packaging therefore becomes pollution; and such pollution causes serious harm to the environment and people’s health. Such actions - with such knowledge - are morally indefensible.”
Tearfund is calling for companies globally to switch to refillable and reusable packaging in their supply chain in favour of plastic bottles. Using data from the World Bank, the NGO was able to estimate the quantity of plastic waste for each company mentioned, with the analysis independently reviewed.
According to the report, Coca-Cola is the biggest contributor to the problem in all six countries, creating around 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste - equal to eight-billion bottles - each year; this figure alone is enough to cover 33 football fields every day.
PepsiCo was the second worst offender, creating 137,000 tonnes of plastic pollution each year, enough to cover 22 football fields each day. Nestle and Unilever followed in 3rd and 4th place with 95,000 and 70,000 tonnes of plastic waste each year - fifteen and eleven football fields - respectively.
The Guardian’s Sandra Laville writes that “global plastic production is increasing, and is set to double over the next 10 to 15 years creating plastic pollution, increased carbon emissions and deadly health impacts for people in the poorest nations.”
Communities in these developing nations are more prone to sickness and death from the mismanagement of plastic pollution, as well as the risk of environmental destruction with plastic filling up waterways.
Director of global advocacy and influencing at Tearfund, Dr Ruth Valerio said that “these companies are selling plastic in the full knowledge that it will be burned or dumped in developing countries: scarring landscapes, contributing to climate change and harming the health of the world’s poorest people.”
“Coca-Cola, Nestle, 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 did, however, mention examples of positive change from companies like Unilever, who adopted a mobile dispensing delivery system in Chile, which offered refills to customers. This was in addition to Coca-Cola launching returnable PET bottles in Brazil.
“These examples show moving to refill and reuse models is possible.. There are decision-makers in companies who are willing to think outside the (single-use plastic) box,” the report mentions.
Tearfund has made a list of demands from the four companies, stating that it would like those involved to report - precisely - the number of single-use plastic products they produce, and to reduce this number by 50% by encouraging refills and biodegradable packaging. In addition, Tearfund demands those companies to recycle the single-use plastic they produce, and to work alongside locals to pick up and eventually recycle the waste.
Spokespeople from all four manufacturers have replied to the report, with Unilever stating that “we’ve committed to halve our use of virgin plastic in our packaging in just five years and reduce our total use of plastic by more than 100,000 tonnes. This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to packaging and products, and as we speak, we’re piloting different reuse and refill formats across the world, so we can test, learn and scale these solutions.”
A Coca-Cola spokesperson said that “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.”
Nestle replied stating that “we have set ourselves the commitment to make 100% of our packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. We are working hard to eliminate non-recyclable plastics and invest in innovative, alternative delivery systems, including bulk, reuse and refill options.”
And finally, a PepsiCo representative stated that “we are working to reduce the amount of plastic we use and have set a target to, by 2025, decrease virgin plastic content across our beverage business by 35 per cent. Between July 2018 and 2019 we pledged over $51m to global partnerships designed to boost recycling rates to support a circular economy.”