Why did Coca-Cola, which launched plant-based bottles, become the world’s largest “plastic polluter” for four consecutive years?

A young Brazilian collecting garbage on the west side of Rio de Janeiro found a bag of potato chips older than his age. It was born in 1996. His companion tried to use a motorboat to navigate the canal, but the plastic fragments damaged the engine.

In remote Indonesia, another young man found many Unilever personal care products in the Malang Regent River. The packaging from around 1990 to the beginning of 2000, although aged and faded over time, was intact.

▲ Picture from: Break Free From Plastic

There are 11,184 volunteers like them from 45 countries and regions. As a member of the environmental protection organization Break Free From Plastic, they have collected more than 330,000 pieces of plastic waste from communities around the world, 58% of which are marked with a clear consumer brand, so that they can identify the company with the most serious plastic pollution.

In the Break Free From Plastic report , Coca-Cola was rated as the world's largest corporate pollution source for four consecutive years.

Why is Coca-Cola "re-elected"?

In addition to Coca-Cola, the top ten plastic pollution companies in 2021 are: Pepsi, Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Mondelez International, Philip Morris International, Danone, Mars, and Colgate-Palmolive.

▲ Picture from: Break Free From Plastic

Coca-Cola has become the world's largest plastic polluter for the fourth consecutive year. Since 2019, Coca-Cola has more plastic waste than the second and third places combined.

Coca-Cola's revenue in 2020 is 33 billion U.S. dollars. At the same time, the global collection, classification, disposal and recycling costs of plastic waste in 2019 alone exceed 32 billion U.S. dollars—almost the same as Coca-Cola's 2020 revenue.

▲ Picture from: Unsplash

As a beverage giant, Pepsi has "stable performance" and has been in the top three every year since 2018. In the four consecutive years of brand audits, Unilever rose to third for the first time this year. It happened to be the 26th session of the United Nations in Glasgow this year. The main partner of the Climate Change Conference.

▲ Picture from: Earth Island

Why do these fast-moving consumer goods companies stay in the rankings? The reason is that they rely heavily on disposable plastics based on fossil fuels.

More than 99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels. If the life cycle of plastics is a country, it will become the world's fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases; if it is not controlled, plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years.

The reality is not optimistic. A recent survey by the global environmental organization "Greenpeace" shows that every FMCG company's plastic supply chain is associated with at least one fossil fuel or petrochemical company.

▲ Picture from: Changing Markets

Although some companies have made moderate cuts, Coca-Cola and Mars have increased plastic production in 2020 . According to a report released by Greenpeace in September this year , high-polluting consumer goods companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Pepsi are pushing the fossil fuel industry to expand plastic production.

At the same time, we have heard more or less about the environmental protection projects of FMCG companies for plastics, but they are not as effective as expected.

Why is "environmental protection project" not environmentally friendly?

When the results of the brand audit this year came out, Coca-Cola launched the first PET beverage bottle made of 100% plant-based plastic (except for caps and labels), and about 900 prototype bottles have been produced.

▲ 100% plant-based PET beverage bottle. Picture from: Coca-Cola official website

In the production process, plant-based bottles can indeed save oil resources and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In 2009, Coca-Cola launched a recyclable PET plastic bottle made of 30% plant material. This year's new process replaces 70% of the original oil-based materials with sugar in corn and simplifies the production process to make it mass-produced.

▲ Plant bottles in 2009.

But the recycling process is not completely environmentally friendly. Coca-Cola promises that the appearance, function, and recycling of the new plant-based bottles are similar to traditional PET. PET is the most recycled plastic, but its recycling also has many limitations.

On July 21 this year, the environmental organization Sierra Club announced a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and other brands on the grounds that Coca-Cola affixed a "100% recyclable" label on plastic bottles and misled consumers.

Sierra Club pointed out in the lawsuit: First, the bottle label is made of non-recyclable biaxially oriented polypropylene; second, although the bottle body is made of PET, at least 28% of the PET cannot be recycled due to pollution and processing losses.

Coupled with the fact that the cost of new materials is much lower than the cost of recycling, and plastic waste cannot be effectively collected and transported, most plastic bottles will end up in landfills, incinerators, oceans, rivers, and even everywhere.

In 2019, only 1.9% of plastic packaging used or produced by major plastic polluting enterprises could be reused .

▲ Picture from: GETTY IMAGES

In addition, plant-based PET is still PET. If it is not recycled or reused, it is difficult to degrade in the natural environment. Issues of concern also include that plant bottles may increase the demand for planting land, which may have been used to grow food crops.

Those who travel a hundred miles are half and ninety. The so-called 100% plant-based bottle is not an environmental medal. It only makes sense to ensure 100% recycling.

However, FMCG companies often like to use one-sided "recycling" actions to establish an environmental image.

In 2018, Coca-Cola announced that about 300 sample bottles were made using 25% of marine plastic recovered from the Mediterranean. Environmental protection organizations pointed out that most ocean plastics are too small and distributed too far and deep, and only garbage that comes to the beach with the tide can be cleaned up.

Ironically, the number of plastic products entering the ocean in the world in one year is staggering, and Coca-Cola's plastic footprint is particularly far-reaching.

▲ Coca-Cola Ocean Bottle.

These companies also have many "announce and then do nothing" projects. In 2019, P&G promised to establish a recycling facility in India. Afterwards, a P&G spokesperson said that the company did not determine the date for the opening of recycling facilities in India ; in 2020, Coca-Cola's refillable glass bottles accounted for 9.3% of the total packaging, even lower than 11.7 in 2018. %.

These moves often shine brightly when they are just launched, and eventually exit quietly.

Some environmental protection projects have turned to the opposite of environmental protection. Unilever commissioned a local waste collection partner to provide the collected plastic waste to the cement kiln . But cement kilns also cause air and water pollution and a large amount of carbon emissions. Burning plastics will never be the solution.

▲ Picture from: Unsplash

Therefore, all kinds of unsatisfactory environmental protection projects are more like mere flower decorations.

In 2019, Coca-Cola invested US$4.24 billion in advertising and marketing, while the investment in the river cleanup program in the same year was only US$11 million , which looks more like a public relations stunt.

Earlier this year, a report commissioned by Break Free From Plastic attacked companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi for "lack of ambition for real change." Abigail Aguilar, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator, said when talking about Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Nestlé:

These companies claim to be solving the plastic crisis, but they continue to invest in the wrong solutions while working with oil companies to produce more plastics. To stop this chaos and combat climate change, multinational companies like this must end their reliance on single-use plastic packaging and stay away from fossil fuels.

▲ Picture from: Unsplash

Environmental organizations believe that the best way to solve the plastic footprint is to first reduce the production of plastic and take practical actions to solve the problem from the source, rather than clean it up after it has entered the environment.

Plastic pollution is about our future

The slow or even backward pace of FMCG companies on the road to environmental protection is the reason why environmental organizations conduct brand audits:

69 of the 100 largest economies in the world are companies, not countries. Business actors must lead to a plastic-free and climate-safe future because they have the ability, means, and resources to change this vision into reality. If the status quo is maintained, these corporate polluters are passing the burden on to young people, low-income communities and underdeveloped countries.

▲ Picture from: Unsplash

The largest plastic pollution companies have made voluntary commitments. Coca-Cola announced its "Waste-Free World" plan in 2018. By 2030, every bottle of Coke sold will be recycled. By 2025, it will reduce the use of 3 million tons of virgin plastic from petroleum.

▲ Picture from: Coca-Cola official website

Perhaps because time is limited, or perhaps because efforts are scattered and inadequate, these commitments make little difference.

By 2050, plastic production will triple, and 42% of all non-fiber plastics manufactured to date have been used in packaging, and most of them may be used by fast-moving consumer goods companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, Nestlé, and Procter & Gamble.

The core problem is that if the business models of these companies are not deliberately changed, it will be difficult to truly shut down the source of plastic pollution. Break Free From Plastic pointed out that what the company must do is:

Disclose the full scope of the plastic footprint; significantly reduce the amount of plastic produced; reshape the packaging to make it reusable and plastic-free; establish a reuse and refill system.

▲ Picture from: Break Free From Plastic

A case that can be referred to is that countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Denmark are implementing a deposit refund system . The returned glass bottles can be reused 50 times, and plastic bottles can be reused 15 times; soda drinks machines commonly found in movie theaters and fast food restaurants and households The delivery system is also worth implementing.

▲ Picture from: Avantium official website

Compared to plant-based PET, plant-based bottles from Dutch sustainable chemical company Avantium may be a better solution. According to Avantium, this bottle is better than PET as a container for soda water and other products, and is completely decomposed within a year in a composting facility, and completely decomposed within a few years in the natural environment. But even if the effect is true, it will take many years to replace PET.

An article on theofficial website of the Yale School of Environment argues that the solution to plastic waste is not to develop better degradable plastics, but to greatly increase the amount of plastic recycled. The key is "Extension of Producer Responsibility", that is, whoever causes the trouble will be held responsible. Professor Narayan of Michigan State University said:

The popular bottle in the future will still be the current PET bottle. But we need to be able to collect it, recycle it, and recycle it. That is the future.

▲ Picture from: GETTY IMAGES

At the same time, the government must formulate a legally binding treaty so that corporate polluters who violate the regulations face serious legal and financial consequences. Neil Tangri, Director of Science and Policy for Global Incinerator Alternatives, stated in a statement :

Although companies promise to do better, they enter the brand review list year after year. Obviously, we cannot rely on these companies to do the right thing. It is time for the government to step up its policies to reduce waste and hold producers accountable.

An interesting detail was also highlighted in the brand audit report-this year's brand audit report highlighted the voices of young people from all over the world. 20% of the report was led by young people, including the young people mentioned at the beginning.

▲ Picture from: Sierra Club

An important reason is that if the plastic pollution crisis is not resolved, young people will lose the most in the future.

In the brand audit report, they made this call:

We will not accept tomorrow’s sea level rise and the disappearance of coastal communities in exchange for today’s disposable plastic tableware; we will not accept tomorrow’s drought, heat waves and forest fires in exchange for today’s disposable plastic bags.

We will not accept tomorrow’s super storms and other extreme weather events in exchange for today’s individually packaged consumer goods; today’s "convenience" will cause chaos tomorrow.

Unless short-term profit-oriented companies act now, young people will inherit a climate-turbulent world.

▲ Full report: https://www.breakfreefromplastic.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/BRAND-AUDIT-REPORT-2021.pdf

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