Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and McDonald’s ‘responsible for 39% of UK’s branded packaging pollution’

An analysis of packaging litter collected by volunteers across the UK this year has found that, once again, the most commonly-littered brands are Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and McDonald’s. These brands are under pressure to improve their refill and recycling efforts.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and McDonald’s ‘responsible for 39% of UK’s branded packaging pollution’

Pictured: A Coca-Cola bottle lid tangled in seaweed.

Figures published today (23 August) by charity Surfers Against Sewage reveal that packaging from these brands accounted for 39% of the branded items that more than 3,700 volunteers collected from more than 13,000 miles in the UK this year as part of its ‘Million Mile Clean’ litter picks.

The collections covered a variety of locations including beaches, rivers, forests and streets. In total, 28,727 items were collected, of which 10,843 (37.8%) could be identified by a particular brand.

The figures are published in a new report which names nine other brands along with these three companies as making up the ‘Dirty Dozen’ – the 12 brands whose packaging is most commonly found as litter across the UK, in terms of the proportion of the branded litter items collected they account for.

Surfers Against Sewage has named a ‘Dirty Dozen’ for three consecutive years now, and the top three remain unchanged.  Rounding out the Dirty Dozen are Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB Inbev), Mondelez International, Nestlé, Tesco, Red Bull, Suntory, Carlsberg Group, Heineken Holding and Mars.

The NGO is pushing all 12 of the named brands to go further and faster on implementing refillable packaging and to advocate for stronger policy action to end litter, including the introduction of a comprehensive, UK-wide deposit-return scheme. Such a scheme was first promised in late 2018 and, following a string of delays, is now likely to come into force in 2024 at the earliest. Surfers Against Sewage notes in its report that 55% of the litter collected would be covered by an ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme, which would cover beverages housed in packaging of an array of sizes and materials.

The organisation’s chief executive Hugo Tagholm said the Government must “urgently” introduce a deposit return scheme, alongside other measures to hold brands to account.

He added: “Year after year, our citizen science brand audit reveals the same huge companies are responsible for the packaging pollution choking our environment. Despite public sustainability commitments, these dirty brands are failing to take meaningful action to stop this harm.

“We cannot stand for this blatant greenwashing any longer.”

Spotlight on the big three brands

For Coca-Cola, the most commonly littered packaging items were beverage containers for its namesake brand. Volunteers also collected 259 pieces of litter from Costa Coffee, including coffee cups and food packaging.

Surfers Against Sewage states in its report: “Congratulations on winning the biggest loser award for the third year running. We’re pleased to see public pressure is making you commit to models of refill. Will your words turn into action?”

Coca-Cola announced in February that it will aim to sell 25% of its drinks globally in refillable or returnable packaging by 2030. The commitment was made in response to a shareholder proposal filed by As You Sow and Green Century Capital Management. It adds to the brand’s existing commitments to ensure full recyclability of all packaging by 2025 and the inclusion of at least 50% recycled content in all packaging by 2030.

edie has reached out to Coca-Cola and to all 11 other brands named in the report for a response to Surfers Against Sewage’s findings.

A Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “We share the goal of eliminating plastic waste from the environment and acknowledge that The Coca-Cola Company has a responsibility to help solve this issue. That was the driving force in establishing our World Without Waste goals, and while we continue to make progress against these targets, we are challenging ourselves to do more. Today, all of our packaging is 100% recyclable, and our aim is to get more of it back so that it can be recycled and turned into new packaging again.

“It’s disappointing to see any packaging being littered and that’s why we fully support the introduction of a well-designed deposit return scheme, which we know from results in other countries will encourage people to recycle, rather than litter or throw away.”

PepsiCo and McDonald’s UK have no specific numerical targets on refill but have both been expanding trials and offers in this area. McDonald’s joined TerraCycle’s Loop platform in late 2020 and customers first saw the new packaging in 2021. PepsiCo owns SodaStream and is participating in Asda’s refill station initiative through its Quaker Oats brand. It should set a specific target by 2023, as requested by a passed shareholder resolution.

On recycling, PepsiCo has pledged that all its packaging will be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025 globally. McDonald’s has the same commitment for takeaway packaging by 2024 and restaurant waste by 2027. It has also pledged to decrease the amount of material used in customer packaging and kitchen areas by 20% between 2020 and 2030.

It bears noting that PepsiCo’s poor rating in the report is largely down to frequent littering of snack packets from its Walkers brand. Crisp packets are not recycled at kerbside in the UK. Walkers had previously run a recycling scheme for packers in partnership with TerraCycle, but ended the initiative this April after four years. It put the decision down to an expansion of flexible plastic collection points, like those offered at most large supermarkets.

A PepsiCo UK spokesperson said: “Protecting the planet is really important to us and we share people’s concerns about litter. It’s why we’ve been supporting the Great British Spring Clean for the past four years and all of our packaging is labelled with messaging encouraging the responsible disposal and, wherever possible, the recycling of packaging.

“Our vision is to build a world where packaging never becomes waste, as we set out in our strategic transformation plan, PepsiCo Positive. We are committed to reducing the plastic we use across our entire portfolio – for example, earlier this year, we announced plans to eliminate virgin fossil-based plastic in all crisp and snack bags, delivered by using 100% recycled or renewable content in all packets by 2030. We also believe that deposit return schemes can provide a critical source of high quality, clean recyclate which is why we continue to be supportive of well-designed schemes.”

A McDonald’s spokesperson said: Over 90% of the packaging we use comes from recycled or renewable sources, and can be recycled. We remain committed to finding innovative ways to tackle the issue of packaging waste and are trialling a number of initiatives to help reduce littering.

“Earlier this year, we took part in our biggest ever litter activation, Keep It Clean, where our restaurant teams, members of the public and also a number of celebrity ambassadors to took part in litter picks in the areas that our communities needed it most. The campaign also called on our customers to do their bit by not littering in the first place. The initiative included a partnership with LitterLotto, an app which rewards members of the public with cash prizes for responsible disposal of litter across the country.”

Other brand responses

An AB InBev spokesperson said: “Reducing packaging pollution is a top priority for us and we continue to invest and make progress in this area. All our brands in the UK are plastic-ring free, and we’ve removed 850 tonnes of annual plastic waste from our supply chain through this initiative alone.

“Furthermore, in the past two years, we have invested new technology to have plastic free secondary packaging lines in our breweries and reduce plastic in tertiary packaging. By 2025, we’re aiming for all our products globally to be in either returnable or recycled packaging. We’re proud to be founding members of Circularity Scotland, the scheme administrators for the deposit return scheme in Scotland.”

Tesco’s team did not provide a quote, but noted that the business has removed more than 1.8 billion pieces of plastic packaging from own-brand products since implementing its ‘4 Rs’ plastic packaging strategy in August 2019. It has also introduced flexible plastic recycling banks to all large stores in the UK and has been supporting deposit-return trials and policy campaigns.

A spokesperson for Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company said: “CMBC, as part of Carlsberg Group, takes sustainability very seriously and we are adamant our products should never end up in nature.

“To prevent waste, we have just launched our new Together Towards ZERO and Beyond ESG programme, committing us to new and improved sustainability targets. This includes a new ambition to achieve ZERO packaging waste, with concrete targets to achieve a 90% recycling rate on our bottles and cans and make 100% of our packaging recyclable, reusable or renewable by 2030.

“We have taken positive action to reduce plastic waste through innovations such as our Snap Pack packaging. Snap Pack reduces our use of secondary plastic packaging by up to 76% compared to our previous format, and subsequently reduces the risk of plastic ending up in nature….CMBC is hard at work preparing to support Scotland’s DRS when this begins in 2023 and which we expect will be seen across the UK in the future. This move will be critical to achieving our ambitions.”

We will update this article with any additional comments from named brands as and when they are provided to us.

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