Soft drinks and the environment

What impact do soft drinks have on the environment? We take you through the lifecycle of soft drinks all the way from the field to the fridge.

From the field to the fridge

1. Sourcing raw materials

Brazil, India, China, Thailand & Pakistan are the top five global sugar producers. Sugarcane burning (used to remove the outer leaves before harvesting) can reduce local air quality, and pesticides can damage the local environment.

Around 80% of the world’s sugar is derived from sugar cane, grown by millions of small-scale farmers and plantation workers in developing countries. The price that smallholder farmers receive for cane can fail to cover the costs they incur to produce it, leaving them in a debt trap and with little capital to reinvest into their farms and local communities.

Fairtrade certification enables farmers to get improved access to international markets. The main economic provision of Fairtrade Standards in sugar is that farmers are paid a premium of $60 per tonne of sugar in addition to the negotiated price.

There are more than 54,960 sugar cane farmers in 19 countries participating in Fairtrade.

2. Syrup production

Flavourings, chemicals and sweeteners are blended together. Acids sharpen background taste, additives enhance taste, smell and appearance, emulsions improve appearance, and preservatives and antioxidants maintain colour and flavour.

3. Bottling

Syrup is mixed with water, then packaged for distribution. Carbonated soft drinks usually contain 94% water.

4. Sales and distribution

The product is sent to merchants or to distributors. Total refrigeration emissions from the UK soft drink supply chain are 1.5 million tonnes CO2 per year.

That makes it about 0.2% of the UK’s total emissions (including imported goods) – so it’s not a huge element, but it still isn’t nothing.

Home refrigerators, manufacturing and chilled transportation constitute just 8% of refrigeration emissions. 92% of refrigeration emissions come from ‘retail and food service’ and of this, 67% is food service – restaurants, pubs, hotels and so on.

Bottle coolers – the large fridges you see, for example in supermarket cafes, that contain beverages and sometimes don’t even have doors – represent an overwhelming 70% of the total refrigeration carbon footprint of the soft drinks supply chain

5. Finally, the product is in the hands of the consumer

The next step depends on whether it gets recycled. See our guide to soft drinks for more on this.

New carbon rating

10 companies received Ethical Consumer’s best rating for carbon management, although they may have had other criticisms in the Climate Change column.

This includes all of our Best Buys (apart from Luscombe and Pip’s). It also includes some big brands, such as Lucozade, Orangina, Ribena and Lipton, which all received a best rating.

26 companies received a worst carbon rating, showing far more needs to be done in the industry to tackle carbon emissions.

Drying up resources

The drinks industry is reliant on millions of small-scale farmers and agricultural workers in regions most vulnerable to climate change.

Many companies operate as though water will continue to be a readily accessible commodity. Yet in some regions rivers are drying up, and water depletion is impacting populations that already face resource scarcity.

It can take 132 gallons of water to make a two-litre bottle of soda. 95% of this is used in the supply chain (mainly from ingredients). Sugar is often the biggest culprit.

In Chiapas, Mexico, there is significant water scarcity, yet The Coca-Cola Company is said to have a permit to extract 300,000 gallons of water per day. NGOs and academics protested against the Chiapas bottling plant in 2017.

More than a million traders have participated in protests in the Indian state Tamil Nadu, boycotting PepsiCo and Coca-Cola products over the companies’ use of scarce water sources.

Dilutables

Cordials, squashes, powders and other concentrates can help us to reduce waste in terms of packaging. Concentrate drastically cuts down on packaging because it can be made back into juice in a refillable container from the tap at home.

Buying concentrate also means it can be shipped in a much smaller and lighter form to where it is bottled or packaged, which saves fuel. It can also provide good value for money for consumers.

Dilutables have a year on year growth of 6.4%, over twice the yearly growth of carbonated beverage sales.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter