Is Coca-Cola the UK's worst plastic polluter? -

Is Coca-Cola the UK’s worst plastic polluter?

Coca-Cola has been named the UK’s worst plastic polluter by marine conservation experts Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) in its latest annual audit to identify the country’s worst sources of branded plastic waste.

New data published by SAS today identifies ‘Dirty Dozen’ brands, which it says are responsible for 70 per cent of the branded plastic pollution the group has collected in the UK over a 12-month period.

SAS said this is the fourth consecutive year that Coca-Cola has topped its list of the biggest plastic polluters in the UK, revealing that it is responsible for around 17 percent of all branded plastic pollution recorded in its review by citizen scientists.

The charity acknowledged that high levels of plastic litter from the brand continued despite Coca-Cola initiatives to reduce plastic pollution, such as the introduction of zip-top lids across its entire portfolio in May 2022.

As part of its research, the charity analyzed 30,745 individual pieces of plastic litter collected between June 2022 and June 2023. It found that 36 percent of these pieces – or 10,951 pieces – had specific brands.

McDonald’s and PepsiCo were ranked as the second and third worst polluters by the SAS, with the fast food chain passing the beverage giant on the list for the first time.

Its review found that the top three brand polluters combined were responsible for 37 percent of all brand pollution collected during the review, which it said was down just two percentage points from last year’s figure.

The charity analyzed 30,745 individual pieces of plastic litter collected between June 2022 and June 2023.

Izzy Ross, director of campaigns for the SAS, said the audit findings were “shocking, but unfortunately not surprising”.

“On a yearly basis we see the same perpetrators responsible for disgusting amounts of plastic pollution on our beaches, in our cities and in our countryside,” she said. “These dirty dozen plastic polluters need to clean up their businesses. They need to be held accountable for their pollution and push them to do more to adopt circular business models to reduce their plastic and (by extension) their carbon footprint. These industry giants have the power to save or condemn our ocean. Right now they are choosing the latter.”

Tesco, Haribo, Nestle, Mars, Heineken Holding, Carlsberg Group and Red Bull have also been named by audit as among the largest branded plastic polluters in the UK.

The audit also highlighted the role of the fishing industry as another major source of plastic waste, with fishing gear — including ropes, nets and ropes — making up 11 percent of the contaminated items found during the audit. This figure rose to 16 percent of the waste pollution on beaches.

According to SAS, this is a 5 percent increase from last year’s figure of 11 percent. Fishing rope was also found to be the third most abundant item among non-branded pollution after miscellaneous plastic waste, such as cigarette butts.

This year’s audit also identified e-cigarette and e-cigarette products for the first time, with 131 items recorded in this category.

All items captured in the Brand Audit Report are collected by volunteers during SAS’ Million Mile Cleans events, where communities volunteer to clean coastlines, canal paths, trails, and city streets. This year, SAS said more than 4,000 volunteers took part in more than 499 clean-up events.

Following its findings, SAS said it is now calling on companies to “clean up their act” and step up efforts to tackle plastic pollution by taking responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, reducing their packaging, and adopting circular business models.

The charity is also urging the government to introduce an ‘all-in’ deposit return scheme (DPS) for beverage containers of all sizes and materials, including glass, rather than the current scheme which is only for small containers categorized as ‘on-the-go’.

She suggested that this scheme could see consumers prepay a deposit on the products, which would be refunded when the container was returned.

Ross said the planned DRS remains “one of the most effective ways to reduce plastic pollution.”

She added: “DRS schemes have proven to be very successful in other countries, and there is no reason to assume that this will not be the case in the UK.” “Unfortunately, the government continues to stall on plans to implement DRS. In doing so, it condemns our oceans, beaches, and rivers to an additional eight billion pieces of plastic annually, as plastic gradually chokes these fragile ecosystems to death.”

Last year, the SAS released its National Action Plan to End Plastic Pollution. The plan outlines a series of policy proposals, including calls for legislation to end the production and consumption of unnecessary, single-use and polluting plastics and that ensures more efficient use of resources and waste management.

He also called for business models focused on reducing and reusing as well as a cultural change across society to tackle trash and the widespread use of single-use plastic packaging.

In response to its ranking as the UK’s worst plastic polluter, a Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “It is clear that the world is facing a packaging waste problem, and we have a responsibility to help solve it. At Coca-Cola, we continue to work with our partners to encourage more recycling, while actively supporting the many initiatives aimed at making waste a thing of the past.”

Coca-Cola added that through its “World Without Waste” plan, it seeks to reduce the amount of packaging it uses, and to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every bottle it sells by 2030.

It said all of its UK bottles are already recyclable and all of its smaller packaging is made from 100 percent recycled plastic, except for the cap and label.

The spokesperson added, “We also remain committed to introducing a well-designed deposit return scheme, which we know from results in other countries will encourage people to recycle. As we continue to make progress, we challenge ourselves to do more.”

A spokesperson for McDonald’s, which has been named the second worst plastic polluter in the UK, said: “As a business, we continue to make changes to our packaging in order to reduce plastic waste and have already made a number of moves in this area. These include removing McFlurry plastic lids, straws and salad boxes, and hard plastic Happy Meal toys, as well as changing to paper packaging for all new toys that are recently cut. They are sourced, recyclable, and we actively encourage our customers to dispose of our packaging responsibly.”

In response to the review and its position as the third worst plastic polluter in the UK, a spokesperson for PepsiCo UK said: “We recognize litter on our beaches is a huge problem, and we know there is an important role we must play to help tackle this challenge. That’s why we’ve been supporting the Great British Spring Clean for the past five years and continue to invest in our packaging innovation.”

The company added that it has “invested heavily” in removing unnecessary plastic from its multi-package products by replacing outer bags with paper, cardboard and adhesive tape in its pursuit of a “long-term, large-scale” solution.

PepsiCo UK added that it has an overall goal of eliminating all virgin, fossil-based plastics from its fragile bags and snacks in Europe by 2030.

A spokesperson for Nestlé, which has been named the eighth-worst competitor by SAS, called the SAS review “an important piece of research on the global issue of plastic litter,” adding that while the findings were “not a surprise,” they were “not pretty at all.”

“We are aware of the scale (of the problem),” Nestlé added. “However, it is completely unacceptable that (this) packaging ends up as excrement in the natural environment; it endangers wildlife, threatens ecosystems and the food chain.”

Its review found that the top three brand polluters combined were responsible for 37 percent of all brand pollutants collected.

Nestlé said it is working on plans to have “nearly 100 percent” of its packaging to be designed for recycling by 2025. In 2021, it said it has converted 250 million Smarties packaging into recyclable paper packaging and in 2022, it has begun converting Quality Street wrappers from duplex foil and cellulose into recyclable paper wrappers.

It estimated that this could remove approximately 2 billion individual pieces of packaging material from the UK supply chain.

“We are determined to reduce single-use packaging and are also looking for solutions to change the way consumers receive and enjoy our products,” Nestlé added. “We are actively collaborating with other companies, research institutes, NGOs, and governments around the world to find the solutions needed to make such reports a thing of the past.”

A spokesperson for Carlsberg Marston Brewing Company (CMBC) said:Sustainability is a major focus of CMBC, and we are determined that our products should never expire in nature.

By 2030, we aim to make 100 percent of our packaging recyclable, reusable, or renewable, and to achieve a recycling rate of 90 percent. We’ve made active progress toward these goals with innovations like the Snap Pack, which reduces our use of secondary plastic packaging by up to 76 percent compared to the previous format—reducing the risk of plastic ending up in nature. “

CMBC added that it “firmly” supports plans to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) across the UK.

Representatives from Tesco, Haribo, Mars, Heineken Holding and Red Bull have been contacted for comment but did not respond at the time to go to press.