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Bottling It

Oct 18

Written by:
18/10/2017 14:49  RssIcon

Louisa Casson, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, tells us about its campaign to tackle plastic pollution 


A beached whale with a stomach full of plastic bags. A turtle entangled in plastic rubbish. Seabirds picking through plastic wrappers in their foraging grounds. These are just a few of the brutal images that have made headlines over the past six months, and which starkly illustrate that plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats facing our oceans.


Image: Plastic filled stomach


Millions of tonnes of plastic are contaminating our oceans – with devastating consequences for marine life. From uninhabited Pacific islands to Arctic seas, the oceans are becoming a plastic soup, clogged with plastic pieces ranging from plastic bottles and packaging carried by wind and waterways into the sea, down to tiny microbeads washed down the drain in personal care products. 

Once in the ocean, plastic can last for hundreds of years, fragmenting into smaller pieces that continue to travel around the world on ocean currents, both attracting and releasing toxic chemicals in seawater.

These plastic pieces are choking marine life and are being eaten by animals all along the ocean food chain – including seafood that ends up on our plates. That means that in a plate of half a dozen oysters, there could be up to 50 pieces of microplastic.

A cross-party group of MPs last year echoed calls from scientists on the urgent need for more research into the health risks for humans from plastic pollution in fish and seafood.

And this problem is getting worse. A rubbish truck’s worth of plastic is ending up in the ocean every single minute, culminating in up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic entering the sea each year.



Why is this catastrophe happening?


To track the source of the problem, we have to travel far away from the ocean – and straight to the mega-corporations responsible for pumping out millions of tonnes of single-use plastic packaging, like bottles, bags and food wrappers.

Major players in the soft drinks industry, like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo sell billions of plastic bottles each year – with recent estimates that a million plastic bottles are sold every minute globally. These plastic bottles are designed to be used for just 5-10 minutes before being discarded, where they risk ending up in our environment.

These giant companies, with huge plastic footprints to match, are trying to wash their hands of the problem and blame levels of plastic pollution on customers who don’t recycle.


Image: Coca Cola


But when you think that Coca-Cola alone sells over 100 billion single-use plastic bottles each year, you get a sense of why our recycling systems cannot keep up – and why over half the plastic bottles produced around the world are simply being dumped after one use, ending up on our beaches, our streets or in landfill. In the UK, 16 million plastic bottles go unrecycled every single day.

That’s why, earlier this year, Greenpeace shone a light on these soft drinks giants in its ‘Bottling It’ report, working out that the top five brands (excepting Coca-Cola, which refused to disclose its sales) produce plastic bottles equivalent to the weight of 10,000 blue whales each year – two million tonnes.

Worse still, none of these companies (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Danone, Suntory, Dr Pepper Snapple) has any serious plans to move past single-use plastic, in fact, the industry overall has actually increased its use of single-use plastic in recent years.



These companies use less than 7% recycled content on average in their bottles – failing to support the recycling industries they claim to hold in high regard – and some of them have even been caught lobbying against policy measures to boost recycling, such as deposit return schemes.

Earlier this year we revealed that Coca-Cola was prioritising deposit return schemes in the EU for ‘fight back’ in internal strategy documents. The company also spent close to €1 million lobbying the EU commission, and met several times with politicians in Westminster.

If we’re going to protect our oceans from the harmful impacts of plastic pollution, we need to stop more plastic flowing into the ocean. That means major plastic polluters like these companies need to reduce their plastic footprint and move away from single-use plastic. This involves embracing reusable packaging that isn’t designed to be thrown away after one use, and ramping up the amount of recycled content in their packaging. 



What can we all do? 



We know that we’ll need action from individuals, governments and corporations to tackle plastic pollution. Many of us now carry reusable bags with us when we go to the shops.

Using refillable bottles and coffee cups is another great way of reducing your own plastic footprint. You can also amplify your impact by encouraging local shops, cafes and pubs to make it easier for customers to reduce their plastic footprint, for example, by advertising the option to refill bottles with tap water; moving away from single-use plastic straws and cutlery; or changing suppliers to use more recycled, compostable or durable packaging.




It is our collective power which will be vital if we are to end ocean plastics. Just as public pressure successfully secured a government ban on microbeads, the wave of public outcry at the broader ocean plastics crisis is already spurring political momentum to tackle other parts of the problem, like plastic bottles.

The Scottish Government has said yes to a deposit return scheme and has commissioned a detailed study into how a deposit return scheme (DRS) could work in Scotland, where a small refundable charge is added to drinks containers and returned to the customer when they bring the bottle back.

There is strong cross-party support for introducing a DRS, which has boosted collection rates to over 90% in many European countries. This Scottish support is leading the possibility of change across Britain: Environment Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed that his department is also looking into an English DRS, while Welsh Assembly Members have shown strong support for using new devolved powers to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution.


Targeting Coca-Cola

Equally, consumer pressure is ramping up to make companies think twice about where their packaging ends up. Heavily branded bottles and wrappers aren’t such a marketing dream when they end up washing up on beaches around the world.

We know that big players in the soft drinks industry are now fearful about becoming the poster child of ocean plastics, with Coca-Cola hiring PR giant Edelman this summer to help the company “tell a better story” about its packaging.


Image: Greenpeace


But the company’s actions are yet to match its rhetoric – spun through a new multi-million-pound advertising campaign on recycling. Coca-Cola Great Britain released a new strategy this summer which announced a minimal increase in their 2020 target for recycled content levels, from 40% to 50%, and failed to push through the kind of innovation which is needed to start moving beyond single-use plastics.

The same kind of pressure which has been applied through health campaigns, forcing concessions from Coke over sugar in its products, is needed to tell the company that the times are changing and it can’t afford to be associated with ocean plastic pollution.

As the market leader, Coca-Cola has the means and influence to effect a sea change across the industry. Yet Coca-Cola is failing to step up and show the leadership required. The company has no target for reducing its single-use plastic packaging, with throwaway plastic bottles jumping by nearly a third as a proportion of its global packaging mix since 2008.

The company continues to claim that using 100% recycled plastic would be impossible – yet 100% recycled bottles have been rolled out on a number of soft drinks lines over the past decade. In 2007, Suntory’s Ribena became the first major UK soft drink brand to use 100% recycled plastic.

Canadian brand Naya Natural Spring Water started using 100% recycled plastic bottles in 2009, followed by PepsiCo’s 7Up with 100% recycled ‘EcoGreen’ bottles in 2011. Hong Kong-based brand Watsons Water has offered customers ‘Go Green’ bottles since 2015 and Nestlé’s Natural Spring Water began using 100% rPET bottles in the US in 2015.

However, change is coming. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola was forced to U-turn on its opposition to deposit return schemes after Greenpeace revealed the company’s concerted lobbying against DRS in Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels and Coke’s own customer polling showed strong support for the introduction of a deposit return system in the UK.


Turn the plastics tide

At Greenpeace, we’ve found a hugely positive reaction from our supporters to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. Far too many of us are familiar with seeing plastic bottles on our coastlines and refuse to accept that there can’t be a better way. As this momentum grows, ocean plastics will become too difficult for major companies and governments to ignore too. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon – but we can start to turn the tide on ocean plastics now.


Take Action

To support the campaign, you can sign the Coke petition.


What companies need to do

Greenpeace’s ‘Bottling It’ survey of the top six global soft drinks brands – Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Suntory, Danone, Dr Pepper Snapple and Nestlé – concluded that the companies need to take drastic action now:

  • phase out single-use plastic,
  • embrace reusable packaging and support deposit return schemes,
  • make sure bottles are made from 100% recycled content.




Further Reading: We have just updated our ethical shopping guide to Bottled Water which features a comparison of 29 different brands. 









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