coca cola
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
January 15, 2020 ·  6 min read

Coca-Cola is World’s Largest Plastic Polluter for Second Year straight

Coca Cola products are everywhere, and you might not even realize it. The company that is recognized for its signature red label and classic white print is also behind many other recognizable brands like Sprite, Fanta, Dasani, Minute Maid, Smart Water, Honest Tea, Powerade, Vitamin Water, and many more [1].

You can find Coca Cola Products in almost every home, office, and business across the world, and unfortunately you can also find the plastic waste these products leave behind in our lakes, rivers, parks, and neighborhoods all around the globe.

The World’s Top Corporate Plastic Polluters

The nonprofit Break Free From Plastic recently released its annual global plastic waste audit and identified Coca Cola as the largest producer of plastic waste for the second year in a row [2].

To perform the audit, over 72 thousand volunteers from 51 countries around the world gathered up plastic waste from a selected site in their neighborhood. Hundreds of individuals, groups, and organizations roamed along riverbanks, beaches, roads, and through their local parks, picking up any plastic waste they could find. The items were then sorted according to brand name, item description, type of product, type of material, layers, and local recyclability [2].

For the second consecutive year, Coca Cola was named the Number One Top Global Polluter, with a total of 11 732 branded Coca Cola plastics recorded in 37 countries across four continents. This number is more than the next three top polluters on the list combined [2].In North America, the number one polluter was Nestle, followed by Solo Cup Company and Starbucks. Nestle is behind hundreds of common brands like Gerber, Perrier, Cheerios, Aero, KitKat, Lean Cuisine, Nesquik, Boost, Purina – the list goes on [3].

Plastic is Dangerous to Our Health

The majority of people worldwide are exposed to plastic particles and their associated chemicals at multiple stages throughout the plastic lifecycle. The fracking chemicals used to produce plastic, the toxic chemicals released to make plastic resins, and the additives found in plastic leach out into our air, water, food, and even our own body tissues [4].

These chemicals have known human health implications, including cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and impairment of the immune system, and have a documented impact on skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, the respiratory, nervous, and gastrointestinal systems, liver, and brain [4].

Microplastics that enter the human body can also lead to inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis, which are linked to an array of negative health outcomes including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic inflammation, autoimmune conditions, neurodegenerative diseases, and stroke [4].

Read: Indigenous Canadians in Water Crisis as Nestlé Drains a Million Gallons a Day From Their Land

Plastic is Destroying Our Environment

Not only is the plastic pollution crisis overwhelming our oceans, but it is also a growing threat to our climate. According to an international report, if plastic production continues to grow as it is currently planned, by 2030 the emissions released from plastic production will equate to the number of emissions produced by more than 295 500-watt coal-fired power plants [5]. 

By 2050, that number could more than double, with the greenhouse gas emissions from plastic production reaching 56 gigatons, which is ten to thirteen percent of our total global carbon budget [5].

Thus far, most of the science surrounding plastic pollution in the ocean has revolved primarily around the sheer amount of it- reports of plastic being ingested by sea turtles, birds, and other animals are abundant. In 2018, however, a research team out of the University of Hawaii released a study showing that the growing volume of plastic piling up in our environment may be contributing to climate change [5].

The study explains that these impacts are due to the exposure of plastic to solar radiation and the slow degradation of plastic in our environment [5].

“The degradation and breakdown of plastic represents a previously unrecognized source of greenhouse gases that are expected to increase, especially as more plastic is produced and accumulates in the environment” [5].

The Truth About BioPlastic

In a scathing report released by the global advocacy group, Green Peace, critics claimed that many of these companies, like Coca Cola, Nestle, and Pepsico, are “pretending” to address the plastic crisis.

“Multinational consumer goods companies continue to promote so-called sustainable alternatives that would put unacceptable pressures on natural resources such as forests and agricultural land, which have already been overexploited.” [6]

The alternatives the group is referring to are called BioPlastics. They are made from renewable plant feedstocks such as corn, cassava, sugar beet, or sugar cane and not petrochemicals. They can be just as versatile as regular plastics, so at face-value they seem like a great solution [5].

So what’s the problem with them? Bioplastics are not inherently biodegradable. The natural material they are made from is virtually indistinguishable from its synthetic, petrochemical equivalent. In order to break down, they require and industrial composting process that heats the material up to over 58 degrees celsius (135 degrees fahrenheit) [5].

These plastics also release carbon dioxide as they break down, along with any chemical additives or toxins that were added during the manufacturing process [5].

A Call to Action

In a statement to the Intercept, Coke expressed that they were taking action to reduce their contribution to the plastic crisis.

 “We are investing locally in every market to increase recovery of our bottles and cans…We are also investing to accelerate key innovations that will help to reduce waste, including new enhanced recycling technologies that allow us to recycle poor quality PET plastic, often destined for incineration or landfill, back to high quality food packaging material.” [7]

Critics are arguing that the efforts being put forth by Coca Cola and the other big polluters is not enough. 

“Break Free From Plastic is calling on the top polluters highlighted in this report to lead the way in revealing how much single-use plastic they use, setting clear, public, measurable targets on how they will reduce the quantity of single-use plastic items they produce, and finally to completely reinvent their product delivery systems in order to avoid creating more plastic pollution.”[2]

According to the nonprofit, it will be impossible for the world to reduce plastic pollution without these major brands making major changes to how they deliver their products [2].

How You Can Help

As a consumer, you actually have more power over the decisions brands make than you might think. As often as you can, avoid purchasing products from these companies. Use reusable packaging whenever possible, and avoid purchasing items that are wrapped in single-use plastics. You should also avoid using products that contain microbeads, since these end up in our water supply [8].

When you are using a plastic product that can be recycled, do it – and do it properly. Currently, just nine percent of plastic is properly being recycled worldwide, which is why so much of it is ending up in our environment [9].

You can also participate in or organize a plastic clean-up. You can round up your family and friends to help, and there are also many local and international organizations that can help you get one organized [8].

Finally, support organizations that are addressing plastic pollution. There are many organizations that are working to eliminate plastic in our environment. They rely on donations and volunteers to do their work. Click here for a list of organizations you can support.

The plastic pollution crisis is a massive problem, but if we work together to push large organizations to change, and support the organizations that are already trying to make a difference, we can, and will, see a change for the better.