'Burnt and dumped': Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever and Nestlé plastics waste fuelling climate change

Four of the world's largest users of plastic packaging - Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestlé - are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution that are burnt or dumped each year in six developing countries, creating emissions equivalent to adding two million cars onto roads.

Tearfund argues that “most of the companies focus on recycling, rather than reduction, as the way to address the problem”

Tearfund argues that “most of the companies focus on recycling, rather than reduction, as the way to address the problem”

A new report by international development and relief agency Tearfund claims that single-use bottles, sachets and packets produced by the companies are being burnt in developing countries at an alarming rate and contributing to the climate crisis in the process.

The Burning Question report found that the four global companies create enough plastic pollution to cover 83 football pitches every day. According to the report, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution that is burnt or dumped annually in six developing countries - China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria.

The plastic is burnt or discarded as the nations don’t have the capacity or recycling infrastructure to handle that volume of material. According to the report, the wastage that is burnt creates emissions equivalent to 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 - the same as two million cars on UK roads.

Coca-Cola was found to produce around 200,000 tonnes of plastic pollution across the six nations – around eight billion bottles according to the report. PepsiCo was found to have a plastic pollution footprint of 137,000 tonnes per year, Nestlé produced 95,000 tonnes and Unilever 70,000 tonnes.

As well as exacerbating the climate crisis, a 2019 report from Tearfund found that between 400,000 and one million people die each year in developing countries because of diseases that are related to mismanaged plastic and waste. The report was notably backed by Sir David Attenborough.

With just 14% of all plastic packaging produced collected for recycling globally, the report focused on the four companies in part due to their plastics footprints. However, Tearfund has previously engaged with all four firms, asking them to disclose their footprints on a country-by-country basis and sharing a methodology to do so.

While all but Coca-Cola have made new commitments since Tearfund first interacted with them, only Unilever had committed to reducing its total plastics usage. It also notes that a “few positive cases” are emerging, including Unilever’s dispensing delivery system in Chile and Coca-Cola’s returnable bottles in Brazil.

Tearfund has called on the four firms to report the number of units of single-use plastic products they use and sell by the end of the year, before reducing that amount by 50% by 2025.

What is Unilever doing on plastics?

Unilever has committed to halving its use of virgin plastic by 2025 by reducing plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes, increasing the amount of recycled plastics it uses and collecting and processing more plastic packaging than it sells.

As well as reducing the overall use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes by 2025, Unilever will also help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually as part of a bid to recover and process more plastic packaging than it sells. This commitment makes Unilever the first major global consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio. 

A Unilever spokesperson said: “We believe plastic has its place in delivering products safely and efficiently to consumers around the world. But the place for plastic is not in the environment. Our plastic is our responsibility and that’s why we are taking radical action at all points in the plastic loop.

“Plastic reduction is a critical part of the solution, and so 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.

“In addition, we’ve committed to helping collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2025 working with governments, NGOs and local community groups, to keep plastic in the economy and out of our rivers, streets and oceans.”

The collection of more than 600,000 tonnes of plastic packaging annually by 2025 will be facilitated through investment and partnerships in infrastructure and collection processes in the countries in which Unilever operates. edie has examined Unilever’s plastics strategy – a three-pillar approach to improving the recyclability of its product packaging, focusing on "less", "better" and "no plastics" solutions – in depth. Click here to find out more.

What is PepsiCo doing on plastics?

PepsiCo has announced plans to reduce the use of virgin plastic across its portfolio by 35% by 2025, which will eliminate around 2.5 million metric tonnes of the material from circulation.

The target, measured against a 2018 baseline, builds on existing goals to make 100% of PepsiCo’s packaging recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable; and increase its use of recycled content in plastics packaging to 25%, agreed as part of the firm’s commitment to the UK Plastics Pact. Progress against the new target will be driven by increasing the use of recycled content and alternative packaging for select beverage brands, including Lifewatr, bubly and Aquafina.

A PepsiCo spokesperson said: Changing the way society makes, uses, and disposes of packaging is important and requires pulling a lot of levers. At PepsiCo, we want to help build a system where packaging never becomes waste. That’s why we’re working to reduce the amount of plastics we use and have set a target to, by 2025, decrease virgin plastic content across our beverage business by 35%. It’s why, between July 2018 and 2019, we pledged more $51m to global partnerships designed to boost recycling rates to support a circular economy.

“We recognise that no single organisation or industry can solve this challenge on their own. We aim to leverage our scale and reach to accelerate systemic change and meaningful progress through collaborative, holistic solutions.”

In December 2018, PepsiCo completed the acquisition of SodaStream, an in-home water brand that transforms tap water into flavoured and sparkling drinks in a deal worth $3.2bn. Through expansion to this business, PepsiCo estimates that 67 billion plastic bottles will be avoided through to 2025.

What is Coca-Cola doing on plastics?

The Coca-Cola Company is aiming to make all bottles globally with an average of 50% recycled content by 2030, up from its 2017 proportion of 7%. It has also committed to getting every bottle back for each one sold by 2030.

Information disclosed through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment spring 2019 report found that Coca-Cola used three million tonnes of plastic in its global operations in 2018. 

A Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “We don’t want to see any of our packaging end up where it shouldn’t and we want to see it all recovered and recycled. We have been in dialogue with TearFund’s team and we’re aware of the new report which raises some serious issues and we recognize that we have a responsibility to help solve the situation to reduce plastic waste.

“First and foremost, we are absolutely committed to ensuring the packaging in which we serve our products to consumers is sustainable and our efforts are focused on continuing to improve the eco-design and innovation of our packaging. We believe that plastic still has a role to play as a valuable resource which can be used again and again. However, we’re also focused on removing plastic wherever possible and increasing our use of returnable and refillable packaging. As we work towards a circular packaging economy, collecting and recycling everything we use, including working with the informal waste-picking sector in many of the countries referenced, we are ultimately working towards the elimination of virgin oil-based plastics from our bottles.”

Coca-Cola and its strategic bottling partners Coca-Cola HBC and Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP) are investing €15m in KeelClip, a paperboard packaging solution from Graphic Packaging International that will phase-out shrink wrap on can multipacks.

What is Nestlé doing on plastics?

Nestlé has committed £1.59bn to source food-grade recycled plastics to be used in its packaging, alongside a pledge to cut the amount of virgin plastics it sources by a third. Nestlé’s ambition is to make all of its packaging either recyclable or reusable by 2025, a target that was set publicly in 2018.

The company’s 2025 targets align with the UK Plastics Pact and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. Nestlé is disclosing data as to how it is reducing its 1.5 million metric tonnes of plastics packaging.

A Nestlé spokesperson said: “The “The Burning Question” report by Tearfund highlights the continued challenges we face as a society, in tackling the issue of packaging and plastic waste. Nestlé is determined to look at every option to solve the complex challenges of packaging waste. We embrace multiple solutions that can have an impact now for our consumers and communities.

“In the near future, we will also disclose the number of units produced globally. We are convinced that transparency by all actors is critical to achieving strong and collective action on the issue of plastic waste.

“To address the global issue of plastic packaging waste effectively, we must work collaboratively with industry, local and national governments, civil society and consumers. As part of this approach, Nestlé will take an active role in the development of well-functioning collection, sorting and recycling schemes across the countries where we operate. Successful recycling requires an adequate infrastructure, which is currently not always in place. All our efforts combined will contribute to Nestlé’s goal to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

The company has also identified 17 ‘first mover’ countries where it is aiming to increase recycling rates of its packaging and a further 12 countries where it is aiming to achieve “plastics neutrality”

Elsewhere in its plastic strategy, Nestle recently joined Project STOP, a business-led initiative aiming to prevent plastic pollution from leaking into waterways and oceans across South-East Asia. Founded by innovative materials firm Borealis and blockchain developer SYSTEMIQ in 2017, Project STOP was created in a bid to tackle the 12 million tonnes of plastic estimated to be seeping into the marine environment every year.

Nestlé was the key supporting partner to edie's week of online content dedicated to combatting the plastics problem. You can hear insight on how the company is tackling its plastics footprint here.

Matt Mace



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