Coca-Cola, Unilever among top plastic polluters, report says

Dive Brief:

  • Coca-Cola was named the highest polluter for the fourth year in a row, followed by rival PepsiCo, according to Break Free From Plastic. The sustainability organization issued its annual report detailing the 10 food and beverage CPGs whose products produce the highest number of plastic waste pieces based on “brand audits” it conducted using over 11,000 volunteers collecting waste in 45 countries. Both PepsiCo and Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment by press time. 
  • Unilever joined the top three biggest polluters in the report for the first time, with Nestlé, Mondelēz, Danone and Mars following.
  • Despite their inclusion on the report, all of the companies listed have sustainability goals, such as Unilever’s pledge to cut its overall plastic use by a third by 2025, and several, like Coca-Cola, have trialed sustainable packaging.

Dive Insight:

Coca-Cola has steadily rolled out sustainability initiatives in recent years, such as transitioning to bottles made with 100% recyclable plastic by 2025 and the debut of PlantBottle for Dasani, which is made partially from plants. The beverage giant was ranked last month as the CPG with the highest transparency and recyclability commitments in a report by nonprofit As You Sow. Despite this, it has steadily topped Break Free From Plastic’s waste report since 2018.

The findings said in 2021, 19,826 pieces of plastic waste from Coca-Cola products were recorded, more than double the amount in 2018. The company’s total waste was also more than PepsiCo and Unilever’s waste combined. The organization said based on its research, Coca-Cola’s 2018 pledge to collect one bottle for every one it sells by 2030 is so far having “little impact” on reducing its carbon footprint.

The report detailed that while some CPGs made “modest” reductions in plastic production in 2020, Coca-Cola and Mars both saw increases. The organization said what is absent in many companies’ sustainability pledges is a holistic view of cutting plastic from its entire supply chain. 

“Corporations must be held accountable for the full impacts of the plastic they produce, from extraction to disposal,” the group said. “Focusing solely on waste management and recycling does nothing to address the upstream climate impacts of plastic production.”

Break Free From Plastic called Unilever’s inclusion in the top three a “particularly egregious development,” as the CPG maker is serving as a partner for the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in November. The food giant in 2019 commited to halving its virgin plastic use, along with collecting and processing more plastic than it sells, by 2025.

PepsiCo’s commitment to reduce its virgin plastic use by 50% by 2030 does not go far enough, the organization said, adding that it needs to be more ambitious with rolling out reusable materials. The soda and snacks giant has announced several forays into reusable packaging, such as piloting a reusable Tropicana container as part of its trial with TerraCycle’s Loop platform.

The sustainability organization also criticized CPGs with “net zero carbon emissions” pledges, which companies like Tyson and Mars have announced this year as a goal by 2050. It referenced a report from Corporate Accountability calling net zero emissions commitments a “facade” by companies to appear sustainable while continuing to pollute through their use of plastic packaging.

“Let us be clear: ‘Net zero’ is not zero, and plastics are a key contributor to climate change,” Break Free From Plastic said.

The organization said for CPGs to improve, they should be transparent about their plastic use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, as well as make an “absolute reduction” in the amount of plastic produced and make all packaging reusable.

Along with criticizing CPGs use of single-use plastics, the report emphasized their reliance on fossil fuels, based on GreenPeace research detailing their purchases between their plastic packaging made with resin or petrochemicals from fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

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