Progress or more of the same from top corporate plastic polluters?

For the third year in a row, the list of the largest plastic polluters in the world remains pretty much the same. According to the 2020 Brand Audit Report by Break Free From Plastic, the corporations responsible for polluting the greatest amount of plastic waste are, in order: The Coca-Cola Company; PepsiCo; Nestlé; Unilever; Mondelez International; Mars, Inc.; Procter & Gamble; Philip Morris International; Colgate-Palmolive; and Perfetti Van Melle.

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Haley Clinton
Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

Author: Haley Clinton

Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

Started on staff: 2020
B.S., summa cum laude, Florida Atlantic University Honors College

Haley works on the Beyond Plastics campaign to end the use of single-use plastics at the state and federal levels. Haley lives in Maryland where she enjoys hiking and video games.

For the third year in a row, the list of the largest plastic polluters in the world remains pretty much the same. According to the 2020 Brand Audit Report by Break Free From Plastic, the corporations responsible for polluting the greatest amount of plastic waste are, in order: The Coca-Cola Company; PepsiCo; Nestlé; Unilever; Mondelez International; Mars, Inc.; Procter & Gamble; Philip Morris International; Colgate-Palmolive; and Perfetti Van Melle.

In response, what have these companies done to address the plastic pollution flooding our planet? Some have made public announcements and rolled out voluntary initiatives. Coca-Cola and Pepsico made national news in 2019 by stepping away from a major plastics lobby group. At the time, both companies also made public commitments to explore alternatives and use more recycled materials. But if these companies are really working to reduce pollution, why are their products still found polluting every corner of the globe?

Because the majority of companies worldwide report on sustainability, we can begin to understand the discrepancies between reported goals and actual pollution. Nearly all of the aforementioned top-polluting companies publicly stress the importance of waste reduction, such as Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste initiative, but their actions tend not reflect those priorities. Here are some of their commitments, compared to actual progress:

#1-- Coca-Cola failed to meet its own deadlines

Despite failing to meet their own minimum recycled content (MRC) targets over the past decade, Coca-Cola re-committed in 2018 to using at least 50 percent recycled material in its packaging by 2030. Previously, the company had set a goal of 25 percent by 2015, but fell short, only reaching 12.4 percent, which included “renewable material.” Currently, the company only uses 9.7 percent recycled content in its total plastic-packaging.

Given their history, it’s unclear how Coca-cola expects to meet their 2030 goal. As the world’s single largest plastic polluter, the company should be held accountable.

#2-- Pepsico stayed silent on pro-recycling legislation 

Heavily contaminated recycling streams can make it hard for companies like Pepsico to find clean plastic to recycle in order to meet their virgin plastic reduction goal of 35% by 2025. Although many companies donate to recycling initiatives to improve contamination, Pepsico has failed to support common sense legislation like deposit return systems that effectively prevent contamination and increase access to high-quality recycled plastic. 

#3-- Nestlé pushed for non-sustainable, bio-based materials

In an attempt to move away from fossil fuel-based plastics, Nestlé has attempted to replace plastic with alternative, bio-based materials. The food and beverage giant has started using paper straws, paper-based packaging and labeling, and has been researching marine-biodegradable and compostable polymers. While these programs are alluring, replacing one disposable product with another remains wasteful. For companies like Nestlé to truly reduce consumption and waste, they must stop promoting such quick fixes and instead utilize more reusable and refillable products.

#4-- Unilever makes progress some places, hinders it elsewhere

Unilever turned heads with its 100 percent recycled plastic “festival bottle,” designed to be collected using a deposit system in a few European countries. Unfortunately, Unilever also failed to fully support efforts to institute similar deposit systems elsewhere in order to allow the program to expand. Unilever has also worked on some small scale pilot refillable products in Europe, but according to its Global Packaging Sustainability Director, failed to meet goals for recycling multi-layered plastic “sachets” that have taken a huge toll on the environment especially in emerging South East Asian markets. In order for Unilever to achieve waste reduction through expanded collection and reduction programs, the company needs to actively support them globally and across all brands.

#5-- Mondelez International released plastic production numbers, but transparency is still lacking

While a majority of multinational corporations now report on progress towards sustainability goals, some are more transparent than others. Mondelez, a perpetual top polluter, claimed to have eliminated 64,850 metric tonnes of packaging since 2013 (just shy of their 65,000 tonne goal). However, it’s unclear where the reduction was achieved. The company has not specified how much of their packaging remains plastic. For any company to make sustainability claims and be taken seriously, more transparency and perhaps independent, third-party inspection, will be needed.

#6-- Mars, Inc. boasted about hazardous chemical recycling

Chemical “recycling” describes the controversial practice of turning waste plastic into fossil fuels. Although proponents see potential for hard-to-recycle plastic, after years of research and billions of dollars in investments, the technology is still ineffective and toxic. Even though the technology is unproven and does not recycle, Mars plans to invest in order to meet their ”recycled” content targets.

#7-- Procter & Gamble only made small-scale commitments

Many of the companies on this list have partnered with TerraCycle’s Loop Initiative, which promotes reusable programs. These pilot projects, however, are often small scale, sometimes only for one product in one country, and therefore don’t encourage global change. 

Procter & Gamble, for example, gained attention for their Head & Shoulders bottle partly produced from ocean plastic, promising more than half a billion bottles containing 25 percent recycled plastic by 2018. However, a story published later showed that the project was limited to 11 countries and only resulted in around 1 million bottles made from 6 tonnes of plastic. The percentage of the recycled plastic was unclear.

#8-- Philip Morris International promotes anti-littering

Philip Morris International is unique in that one of its products -- cigarette filters -- are a commonly overlooked source of plastic waste. Instead of addressing ways to reduce plastic usage directly, the company has turned their public attention to consumers to reduce their plastic litter. In doing so, they have eschewed responsibility for the waste their products create and their impact on the environment.

#9-- Colgate-Palmolive claimed progress with “lightweight” products

When companies set sustainability goals, reporting volume and total units paints a clearer picture than weight, as plastic can be a lightweight but highly hazardous material. Colgate-Palmolive chose to minimize the volume and weight of plastic packaging in their Suavitel bottle cap in Mexico and redesigned Softlan Fine Fabric Liquid Detergent. However ,in doing so, the company did not address the need for reducing the overall number of single-use plastic products created, distracting from more fundamental solutions such as reuse.

#10-- Perfetti Van Melle seemed unconcerned with plastic pollution

Perfetti Van Melle has been a top global polluter for years, but their practices severely lack transparency: their only sustainability report is over four years old. As a result, we found no progress and no evidence of the company working toward reducing the amount of waste their products produce. 

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Clearly, most corporate volunteer initiatives to solve the world’s plastic pollution crisis aren’t working. The longer we wait, the more plastic will enter our environments and threaten our health. To hold the world’s worst plastic polluters accountable, we need strong policies that demand transparent reduction and expanded reuse and refill infrastructure. We already know some policies, like deposit return systems and restrictions on certain plastics, are effective; let’s put them to work. 

Haley Clinton
Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

Author: Haley Clinton

Zero Waste Campaign, Associate

Started on staff: 2020
B.S., summa cum laude, Florida Atlantic University Honors College

Haley works on the Beyond Plastics campaign to end the use of single-use plastics at the state and federal levels. Haley lives in Maryland where she enjoys hiking and video games.