Report: Just 12 businesses account for more than half of UK’s packaging litter

The report is being used as a call to action for businesses and policymakers

The figures, published today (11 August) by environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage, account for the packaging collected during its ‘Million Mile Clean’ campaign this May.

The fortnight-long campaign convened more than 50,000 volunteers, who collectively covered 350,000 miles. Almost 4,000 of these volunteers took part in an audit of the brands of the packaging pollution collected, documenting collection locations, brand name and the parent company of the brand.

The audit participants logged data on almost 27,000 items and found that more than half (52%) are attributable to just parent 12 companies. The top three offenders are Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev). Rounding out the cohort described by Surfers Against Sewage as the ‘dirty dozen’ are McDonalds, Mondelez International, Heineken, Tesco, Carlsberg Group, Suntory, Haribo, Mars and Aldi.

Surfers Against Sewage conducted its last brand audit in 2019. It believes that Covid-19 lockdown restrictions impacted the type and volume of litter produced. Neither Stella Artois nor Budweiser – both owned by AB InBev – were included in the top 12 brand names in the 2019 ranking, for example. The closure of pubs and restaurants is believed to have led to a spike in drinking at home and in public, open places.

Commenting on the audit’s findings, Surfers Against Sewage’s chief executive Hugo Tagholm said: “Serial offenders including Coca-Cola – which tops the leader board year on year as the worst offender – are still not taking responsibility.

“Legislation such as an ‘all-in’ deposit scheme needs to be introduced urgently and governments need to hold these companies to account and turn off the tap of plastic and packaging pollution flooding the ocean.” 

Industry response

The Coca-Cola Company’s global ambition on packaging resources is to collect and recycle the equivalent of 100% of its bottles and cans by 2025. It is also a signatory of collaborative initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact from WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which is global in scope. Yet it has repeatedly been named as a major plastic polluter; today’s report follows up from an audit of Greenpeace clean-ups, in which Coca-Cola packaging accounted for 14% of the branded items retrieved.

A Coca-Cola spokesperson told edie: “Like everyone, we care about reducing packaging waste and we don’t want to see any of our packaging end up where it shouldn’t. 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 is why we support the introduction of a well-designed Deposit Return Scheme, which would encourage people to recycle rather than litter or throw away. In Great Britain, we’re continuing to work with numerous organisations to encourage more recycling on-the-go and we’re actively supporting a number of initiatives with the aim of making litter something of the past.”

edie has reacted out to the other 11 brands named in the top 12 in this report. Haribo has stated that it does not have an appropriate spokesperson to comment at this time. Tesco has declined to provide a comment but has emphasised that work on its ‘4Rs’ plastics strategy, which has seen more than one billion pieces of plastic packaging removed since 2019, is ongoing.

A spokesperson for Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company said the firm “never wishes to see its products littered or ening up where they shouldn’t be”. The spokesperson added: “We’re working with a number of industry bodies to engage and collaborate on schemes relating to recycling and packaging, in addition to exploring innovative packaging solutions for our products to cut the amount of packaging material we use in the first place.”

A spokesperson for Suntory Beverage & Food Great Britain & Ireland said: “Nobody wants to see any form of litter polluting our natural environment and [we have] been making significant changes to packaging to ensure that once it goes in a bin, it gets recycled to become packaging again and again. 

“We completely agree with the Surfers Against Sewage call for the introduction of deposit return schemes which will keep high-quality plastic material in the loop. We will continue to play our part by improving the circularity of our bottles, making our packaging bottle-to-bottle recyclable and encouraging consumers to recycle.”

A spokesperson for McDonald’s said: “More than 90% of the packaging we use comes from recycled or renewable sources, and can be recycled, and we continue to work hard to increase that number. We remain committed to finding innovative ways to tackle the issue of packaging waste.” 

The spokesperson highlighted McDonald’s’ ongoing work with TerraCycle’s Loop initiative on reusable coffee cups and its collaboration with Hubbub, designed to discourage littering. They additionally confirmed that the business is supporting the introduction of a deposit return scheme. 

A spokesperson for Heineken UK said the business “understands the immediate impact of litter and are taking important steps to help combat the problem”. They emphasised the fact that all customer-facing packaging is now plastic-free, following the removal of plastic rings on can packs. They additionally stated that the brewer supports Surfers Against Sewage’s policy recommendations and would “welcome a discussion” with the charity. 

A PepsiCo spokesperson said the company has worked to add on-pack messaging to all products informing consumers of how to recycle or responsibly disposed of. They also emphasised its work the Great British Spring Clean event and the Flexible Plastic Fund – a £1m initiative intended to help boost recycling rates for flexible items such as crisp packets. 

A spokesperson for Budweiser Brewing Group UK&I said: “We are at a critical moment in the race to preserve the environment for future generations and we are fully committed to doing our part. We recognise that people will make their own decisions about how they treat their litter, but we strongly encourage everyone to do their bit for the environment by reusing and recycling.

“We’re proud to be founding members of Circularity Scotland, the scheme administrators for the deposit return scheme in Scotland, and we’re working closely with governments, trade associations and the industry to create returnables schemes.”

The spokesperson highlighted the fact that all plastic rings have been phased out in the UK and that more than 850 tonnes of plastic has been removed from the supply chain.

Other responses will be added to this article as edie receives them.

Policy recommendations

As well as calling on companies to reduce the amount of packaging they produce – potentially by scaling up their refillable and reusable offerings – Surfers Against Sewage is using the report as a call to action for the UK Government.

Specifically, the charity is urging policymakers to accelerate the introduction of an ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme for drinks containers of all sizes and materials. Such schemes require customers to pay a few pennies of deposit on each drinks container that they purchase, which would be refunded to them once the container is returned.

According to Surfers Against Sewage, more than half (52%) of the pollution from the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ assessed during the audit could have been processed through such a scheme. The proportion rises to 80% for Coca-Cola.

The UK Government’s mechanism for implementing a deposit return scheme is the Resources & Waste Strategy. This policy package – the first major update in this space for more than a decade – was first published in 2018, with the hopes of launching a nationwide deposit return scheme in 2022 or 2023. Due to Covid-19 related delays with Strategy consultations, the scheme is not likely to be up-and-running until 2024 at the earliest.

The Scottish Government has already committed to launching an all-in scheme. This was meant to launch in April 2021 but the date has since been postponed to July 2022, to give businesses more time to prepare in the wake of Covid-19.

Sarah George

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