- Multinational food and beverage companies Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo are the main contributors to the world’s plastic waste, according to a recently released global report based on a massive brand audit by green groups across 51 countries.
- The audit, organized by Break Free From Plastic, a global movement, focused on plastic trash collected from 484 simultaneous clean-ups carried out around the world.
- In the Philippines in particular, Coca-Cola was found to be a prolific source of plastic waste, accounting for more than 2,800 pieces out of the 11,700 Coke-branded pieces of trash collected during the clean-up.
- While some of these companies have pledged to tackle the plastic problem, activists say they’re refusing to address the root of the problem by making a drastic switch away from plastic packaging.
MANILA — In 2013, Coca-Cola Philippines released a new product for the local market: Coke Mismo, packaged in a 300-milliliter (10-ounce) PET bottled and launched at a star-studded event by stars from Glee, the hit television series, and local celebrity endorsers. Five years later, those same bottles, alongside other size offerings, would become among the most common items picked up during beach clean-ups nationwide. By 2018, Coca-Cola had become the top source of plastic trash in the Philippines — a feat it has repeated this year, based on an anti-plastic movement’s brand audit report.
The report was a result of 484 simultaneous clean-ups conducted on Sept. 21 in 51 countries, including the Philippines, and spanning six continents, to mark World Clean-Up Day. The event saw more than 72,000 volunteers collect nearly 480,000 pieces of plastic waste, with 43 percent of the trash marked with a clear consumer brand.
“By collecting waste from beaches, streets, homes, offices and parks and then counting what brands are on that packaging, the movement is holding fast-moving consumer goods companies accountable for their packaging,” the report says. “Only by highlighting the real culprits can we push them to change their packaging and destructive throwaway business model.”
More than 11,700 PET bottles and other pieces of plastic waste gathered during the global drive came from Coca-Cola. The Philippines accounted for the biggest chunk, more than 2,800 pieces, of the Coca-Cola branded waste that was recorded in 37 countries. The company has a long history in the country; the Philippines was the first Asian country to get the brand’s bottling and distribution franchise, more than 100 years ago.
Other companies whose plastic waste was commonly encountered during the clean-ups across the Philippines were multinational food and beverage giant Nestlé and Universal Robina, a local brand with a regional reach. Rounding out the top five were Unilever, a transnational consumer goods company, and Liwayway Holdings Company Ltd., a local snack food producer famous for its Oishi brand.
Worldwide, the top five plastic polluters identified by the report were Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mondelēz International (makers of Oreo cookies, among other brands), and Unilever.
“Corporations like Coke and Pepsi topped the list because they use plastic bottles which are designed to be thrown away,” Von Hernandez of Break Free From Plastic, the global movement behind the report, told Mongabay. “And the fact is, these bottles are not recycled — you don’t produce one bottle out of another bottle with the same quality. Instead, what’s being done is to downcycle a plastic product but that’s just a stop-gap solution … we are just delaying the inevitability of throwing these away.”
The proliferation of plastic waste in the environment, in particular the oceans, was triggered by the advent in the 1990s of the sachet economy, a paradigm to create a new consumer class in developing countries by packaging goods such as shampoo or instant coffee in affordable single-serving sachets. The throwaway culture that this engendered created a deluge of residual plastic waste that is today choking up seas and waterways; 93 percent of the plastic waste picked up for World Clean-Up Day comprised plastic bags (more than 59,000 pieces), sachets (53,000) and plastic bottles (29,000). The Philippines is one of the most prolific consumers of single-use plastic, going through 48 million shopping bags and 164 million sachets on a daily basis, according to data from GAIA, a worldwide alliance focused on finding solutions to the waste problem. The Philippines also ranked third out of 192 coastal countries for mismanaged waste that ends up in the oceans, according to a 2010 study.
More than 50 percent of the waste generated in the Philippines is residual or unrecyclable waste, which poses a challenge for the country’s still-developing waste-management system. Some solutions are being initiated at the source: Coca-Cola unveiled a sample bottle last month made of 25 percent recycled plastic waste from the ocean and expressed its intention to recover its existing cans and bottles; Nestlé is aiming at making 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025 and has opened its first waste-recovery program in Valenzuela City in Metro Manila, the site of numerous plastic factories.
“They are concerned but they oppose policies that would ensure better collection rates for their packaging,” Hernandez said, adding that most of these companies oppose proposals to bring back deposit-return schemes, which would raise prices for consumers. “It doesn’t jive. Then you begin to wonder if they’re really sincere in addressing the pollution they created,” he said.
Hernandez said that even as businesses “talk about zero waste,” they hadn’t made any “serious attempts” to avoid the general production of plastic waste. “It will be impossible for the world to reduce plastic pollution without these brands making major changes to how they deliver their products,” the report says. “The time of relying on single-use packaging is over.”
Companies still miss the mark when it comes to cleaning up their single-use plastic packaging, a Greenpeace report said last month. It warned that plastic production is still projected to “dramatically increase” in the coming years despite the existing waste problem.
Governments around the world, however, are starting to act against plastics. Around 40 countries around the world have implemented a full ban on plastic bags and at least 30 are implementing a partial ban or considering a ban, according to data from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Development experts have also floated the idea of providing incentives for companies to encourage drastic shifts in consumption models and propel sustainable packaging designs.
Several measures prohibiting the use of single-use plastics have been filed in both the Congress and Senate in the Philippines and President Rodrigo Duterte has been considering a ban on single-use plastics.
“We reached the point that we have to address residuals,” Hernandez said. “Our national policy should be targeting that and extend producer responsibility … make these companies responsible for the plastic they produce and hold them accountable.”
Banner image of littered Coke PET bottles collected from a beach clean-up in Panglao Island, a prime tourist destination in the Philippines. Image courtesy of Plastic Free Bohol
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