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New Report Details How Giants Like Coca-Cola Are Trashing the Planet With Plastics While Pushing 'False Solutions'

"Only by highlighting the real culprits can we push them to change their packaging and destructive throwaway business model."

Plastic waste including consumer items such as cups bottles are strewn across a popular beach in Beirut.

Plastic waste including consumer items such as cups bottles are strewn across a popular beach in Beirut. (Photo: Amer Ghazzal / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

A new report out Wednesday from a global environmental coalition named the corporate giants responsible for the most global plastic pollution in a recent tally—with Coca Cola and Nestlé topping the list—even as those same companies engage in greenwash efforts to continue "the plastic pollution crisis."

"This report provides more evidence that corporations urgently need to do more to address the plastic pollution crisis they've created," said Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic movement, in statement.

For its analysis, the coalition engaged in a "brand audit." That means "identifying, counting, and documenting the brands found on plastic and other collected packaging waste to help identify the corporations responsible for pollution," in other words, finding "the companies polluting the most places with the most plastics."

The tally took place last month on World Cleanup Day, and involved over 70,000 volunteers in 51 countries across six continents. They gathered and assessed "476,423 pieces of plastic waste, 43 percent of which was marked with a clear consumer brand," the report said.

The top 10 most frequently identified companies were Coca Cola, Nestle, PepsiCo, Mondelez International, Unilever, Mars, P&G, Colgate-Palmolive, Phillip Morris, and Perfetti Van Mille.

What did it take for Coca Cola to take top spot—a dubious honor it takes for the second year in a row?

"A total of 11,732 branded Coca Cola plastics were recorded in 37 countries across four continents," the report said, "more than the next three top global polluters combined."

Nestlé and PepsiCo, meanwhile, still claim spots two and three respectively, swapping the positions they held in the coalition's 2018 audit.

"We must continue to expose these real culprits of our plastic and recycling crisis."
—Denise Patel, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
Break Free From Plastic's name-and-shame effort has a clear goal: "Only by highlighting the real culprits can we push them to change their packaging and destructive throwaway business model." In addition, said the group, it's "a powerful tool to challenge the corporate narrative that plastic pollution is a waste management issue caused by individual consumers."

Companies may tout that their plastic products are recyclable, but that's an incomplete description, said the report. Labeling a product recyclable provides no guarantee that it will actually get recycled. The report noted that "since the 1950's, only 9 percent has actually been recycled globally."

Even if the product is recycled, that's no "magic solution."

This is because plastic polymer chains get shorter when they are recycled, which means the quality deteriorates. A plastic bottle can only be recycled a few times and in reality most recycled plastic is made into clothing, construction materials, or other products that will not get recycled again.

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What's more, the production of plastic generally relies on climate-wrecking fossil fuels and causes air pollution, while the use of it can threaten consumers who face potentially leaching chemicals. All of these problems, the report said, "disproportionately impact the world's poorest communities," who are often the dumping ground for wealthier nations' plastic waste.

"The products and packaging that brands like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo are churning out is turning our recycling system into garbage," said Denise Patel, U.S. Coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). "China has effectively banned the import of the U.S. and other exporting countries' 'recycling,' and other countries are following suit. Plastic is being burned in incinerators across the world, exposing communities to toxic pollution. We must continue to expose these real culprits of our plastic and recycling crisis."

The industry response to the crisis is of no help.

"In the face of the undeniable evidence provided by the global brand audits, top industry polluters have been quick to acknowledge their role in perpetuating the plastic pollution crisis, but have been equally aggressive in promoting false solutions to address the problem," said the report, noting that they do so as they "reap billions of dollars while avoiding paying the full cost of their design and production choices."

These "false solutions, such as switching to paper or 'bioplastics' or embracing chemical recycling, are failing to move society away from single-use packaging and only continue to perpetuate the throwaway culture."

From the report:

Nestlé for example has committed to making all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, but has no clear plans for reducing the total amount of single-use plastic it puts into the world, and the company sells over a billion products a day in single-use packaging. Coca Cola has recently unveiled a single-use plastic bottle using plastic collected from the oceans, and in 2009 they promoted a plastic bottle made from plants. None of these products will stop or reduce Coke’s growing plastic pollution, and reinforce the myth that single-use plastic can be sustainable. And finally, PepsiCo has joined the Alliance to End Plastic Waste that brings together plastic producers, oil companies and other consumer goods companies to promote beach cleanups and improving recycling as a way to ensure future demand for petrochemicals to make more plastic. Efforts like these, and others focused on making packaging recyclable or compostable, do not get to the heart of the problem and all but guarantee the plastic pollution crisis will grow worse.

"Real solutions," said the report, "must change systems and power structures."

That means looking at examples set by so-called "zero waste" communities, who boost waste reduction, recycling, and composting. Business must also get on board with "the one true solution: reduction and reuse."

That's because, according to Hernandez, "Recycling is not going to solve this problem."

"Break Free From Plastic's nearly 1,800 member organizations are calling on corporations to urgently reduce their production of single-use plastic," said Hernandez, "and find innovative solutions focused on alternative delivery systems that do not create pollution."

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