It’s getting harder for Big Cola to not take responsibility for its plastic pollution

Activism needed.
Activism needed.
Image: Greenpeace
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In June and September 2018, more than 10,000 volunteers in 42 countries participated in events to tidy up their surrounding. Their main goal was to collect plastic waste and record the names of the brands that produced it.

The groups collected 180,000 individual pieces of plastic. Here are the top culprits:

Plastic is a wonder material. It’s easy to make and transport, and can handle conditions of all sort: hot or cold, wet or dry. So it’s little surprise that since its invention, plastic has become part of almost every facet of modern living.

We now produce 320 million metric tons of plastic every year. Since 1950, we’ve produced more than 8 billion metric tons of the stuff. The trouble is that most of this plastic ends up being thrown away after just one use, and only 9% of those 8 billion tons has been recycled, while another 12% incinerated. That means over 6 billion metric tons of plastic are still in our environment.

There, the plastic does break down, but lingers as microparticles for millennia. The plastic that enters the waterways harms animals that ingest it and then it often ends up on our plate through nature’s complex food chain.

The solution would be to use only recyclable plastic and to ensure recycling happens.

Currently, one of the most recyclable types of plastic is PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is most commonly used for bottled water and carbonated drinks. In theory, we could collect and recycle almost all of it. But even the parts of the world that do a good job aren’t very effective at it. India recycles about 80% of PET bottles sold there. The US recycles less than 30%.

Companies that use this plastic talk a big game about helping. In 2008, Nestlé Waters set a recycling goal of 60% for its PET bottles by 2018. In 2010, Pepsi set a similar recycling goal of 50% for its PET bottles the US by 2018. Neither company has succeeded in hitting. 

Is it really a company’s responsibility to recycle the plastic? In the strictest sense, the answer would be no. No country (as far as we can tell) has put in place such a regulation. The answer then should be to educate the public about the problem and lobby the government to create infrastructure to help increase recycling rates.

But changing people’s habits is hard and educating them even harder. So another way to address the problem is to target corporations that produce the plastic. If they are able to produce more sustainable products and help governments increase recyclability, the corporations are likely to help the environment and even themselves, through higher sales and a better corporate image.

That’s the goal of Break Free From Plastic, a coalition of 1,300 organizations from around the world, which was behind the efforts to organize the volunteering activities on World Environment Day (June 5) and World Cleanup Day (Sept. 15).

Plastic activism seems to be working, at least to some extent. Just today (Oct. 10), Mondelez International announced that all its plastic packaging will be recyclable by 2025. It joins KraftHeinz and Pepsi, who have declared a similar goal. Procter & Gamble is aiming for 90% recyclability and Colgate-Palmolive for 75% recyclability by 2020.

“Nestlé is committed to achieving its vision that none of its packaging, including plastics, ends up in landfill or as litter. We recognize the issue and we are working hard to eliminate non-recyclable plastics,” a Nestlé spokesperson said.

“Protecting our planet is hugely important to us and the issue of plastics and waste requires urgent attention. We don’t have all the answers yet, and we will continue to collaborate with a number of leaders in this area to learn and share the latest science and practical solutions.” a Pepsi spokesperson said. Quartz has also reached out to Coca-Cola for comment.