Sustainability Infrastructure

Pepsi, Coke and Nestle still the world’s top plastic polluters

A river choked with plastic pollution in Indonesia
A scavenger paddles his wooden boat to collect plastic waste for recycling on the Citarum River choked with garbage and industrial waste, in Bandung, West Java province on June 26, 2019. – The river, one of the world’s most polluted after decades of failed clean-up efforts, in 2018 was earmarked for revitalization by Jakarta to… Getty

Story at a glance

  • A new report identifies the world’s biggest plastic polluters.
  • Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo were the top three for the second year running.
  • All three companies have pledged to make their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

Despite highly visible sustainability campaigns, Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo sit atop a recently released list of the world’s top plastic polluters for the second year in a row

Coca-Cola remained the biggest plastic polluter in the world by a wide margin. A report released last spring showed the corporation produces some 3 million tons of plastic annually — almost twice as much as Nestle, which was No. 2. 

The new analysis comes out of “brand audits,” which involved counting plastic packaging from 484 separate cleanups in more than 50 countries. In addition to tallying a disturbingly large number of individual pieces of plastic pollution, the 72,541 volunteers also recorded which companies produced the plastics.

It was only possible to clearly identify the branding on 43 percent of the 476,423 plastic bags, bottles and sachets returned by the cleanups. Coke’s share of the trash heap amounted to 11,732 pieces of plastic spread among its 500 brands. Nestlé had 4,846 pieces of plastic, and PepsiCo came in third with 3,362 pieces.

Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo have each pledged to reduce plastic waste in the future. The corporations aim to make all their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. 

These efforts favor strategies for reducing plastic waste, such as recycling, that stop short of discontinuing the material’s use in single-use packaging. Playing up recycling as a solution may allow these companies to deflect public scrutiny without significantly altering their business practices. Current statistics also suggest recycling may not make a significant dent in the plastic problem: Just 9 percent of all plastic is recycled.

Coke and Pepsi announced over the summer that they had exited a prominent plastics industry association that has lobbied extensively to combat regulations aimed at reducing plastic use. Other large companies like Clorox and Ecolab have also left the trade organization.

Coca-Cola provided The Intercept with a written statement in response to questions about their outsized contribution to global plastic pollution: “Any time our packaging ends up in our oceans — or anywhere that it doesn’t belong — is unacceptable to us.  In partnership with others, we are working to address this critical global issue, both to help turn off the tap in terms of plastic waste entering our oceans and to help clean up the existing pollution.”

Coke’s statement also said, “We are investing locally in every market to increase recovery of our bottles and cans and recently announced the launch in Vietnam of an industry-backed packaging recovery organization, as well as a bottler-led investment of $19 million in the Philippines in a new food-grade recycling facility. 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.”

But further reporting by The Intercept suggests Coke is still attempting to undermine efforts that could force it to use less plastic in its packaging. 

In addition to the problem of pollution, plastic is also fueling climate change. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and its production releases greenhouse gases to the tune of more than 850 million metric tons in 2019 alone. 

Plastic production also releases a host of chemicals harmful to human health, though plastic’s health risks also extend to the finished product. Because it’s so ubiquitous and lasts so long in the environment, humans inhale and ingest enough plastic each week to make a credit card

But policies aimed at manufacturers like Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo that use plastic may not be enough to reduce plastic pollution. With gasoline consumption projected to wane, many petroleum companies are doubling down on producing the petrochemicals needed for plastic manufacturing to safeguard future profits.