Addressing plastic pollution is the need of the hour. But what happens when the brands we love and use almost daily are the ones causing the most of it? Every year, companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle, Pepsi, and more, produce more than 400 million metric tons of plastic. A portion of this plastic waste ends up clogging waterways or beaches or breaks down into microplastics and nanoplastics that pollute the air and infiltrate human organs.

A landmark scientific investigation revealed the shocking truth: a select group of multinational companies are the primary contributors to the global plastic waste crisis. This study signifies the need for urgent corporate action on plastic reduction and waste management.

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The Research & The Findings

A new study published in Science Advances paints a shocking picture of plastic pollution around the world.  Researchers from Dalhousie University and collaborating institutions across the globe conducted audits of plastic waste in 84 countries over five years. The study uncovered an alarming truth: over 50% of branded plastic pollution can be traced back to just 56 companies.

The research team of more than 100,000 volunteers catalogued over 1.8 million pieces of plastic waste. The study identified 28,570 brand names found on plastic in areas including beaches, rivers and parks in 84 countries. Five companies are responsible for 24% of the branded plastic, and 56 companies are responsible for over 50% of the branded plastic.

Thirteen companies have an individual contribution of 1% or more of the total branded plastic observed in the audit events,” the report stated. “All 13 companies produce food, beverage or tobacco products. The top company, The Coca-Cola Company, was responsible for 11%, significantly greater than any other company.

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The Big Four Polluters

F&B giants, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, Bakhresa Group, Unilever, Wings, Mayora Indah, Mondelēz, Mars and Salim Group followed Coca-Cola in the top ten plastic polluters. The report further identifies the top 4 plastic polluters:

  1.  The Coca-Cola Company (11%)
  2.  PepsiCo (5%)
  3.  Nestlé (3%)
  4.  Danone (2%)

These major corporations, according to co-author Professor Tony Walker, have a vast global reach, contributing significantly to plastic pollution problems in every corner of the planet. The research also highlights a disturbing trend: plastic production has doubled since 2000, jumping from 200 million tonnes to a staggering 400 million tonnes in 2019.

The Danger Looms

By the end of the current decade, experts estimate another 53 million tons will end up in the oceans every single year. That’s going to make life worse for the marine species and us. Plastic can be extremely damaging. And now, exposure to it begins in the womb itself. In the seas, plastics can choke the marine life. On land, they can poison groundwater.

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Industry Response

The finger pointed at major corporations has prompted responses from some of the top polluters named in the study:

  •  Coca-Cola

Aims for 100% globally recyclable packaging by 2025 and 50% recycled content by 2030. Additionally, they aim to collect and recycle a bottle or can for each one sold by 2030.

  •  PepsiCo

Emphasizes its decade-long commitment to reducing packaging, exploring reusable models, and partnering on improved collection and recycling systems. They advocate for a binding global policy framework to address plastic pollution.

  •  Nestlé

Acknowledges plastic pollution as a serious issue and supports global regulations. They highlight ongoing projects to develop waste collection, sorting, and recycling schemes across multiple continents.

Combating Plastic Pollution

The study’s release coincides with a summit in Ottawa, Canada, where representatives from 176 countries are working towards a solution. This is the fourth round of negotiations leading up to a final session in South Korea later in 2024, where a binding international treaty on plastic pollution is expected to be signed.

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What Should The Next Steps Be?

Professor Patricia Corcoran from the University of Western Ontario points out that food and beverage packaging waste is a big problem. She suggests that making major producers responsible can really push for positive changes.

The study also challenges the notion that recycling alone cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis.  With only 9% of plastics ever recycled, researchers advocate for a multi-pronged approach, including:

  • Eliminating difficult-to-recycle plastics.
  • Holding corporations accountable for the environmental impact of their products.
  • Implementing better tracking systems for plastic production and disposal.

The researchers call for an international, open-access database where companies must report the quantity of plastic products, packaging, and brands entering the environment. The Canadian government has taken a step in this direction with a new registry requiring companies to detail plastic production volumes and their ultimate destinations.

Let’s hope something good comes out of all this. And let’s also pledge to reduce our plastic usage as much as possible, especially when it comes to the top polluting brands. Always remember: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle!