Coke and Walkers top polluting list

A citizen-led audit of beach pollution finds top food and drink brands most common and puts plastic back on agenda as threat to nature and climate.

Coca Cola, Walkers, McDonald’s, Cadbury and Tesco are the top five brands responsible for pollution ending up on Britain’s beaches, a new citizen-led packaging audit has found.

Organised by ocean charity Surfers Against Sewage as part of their Million Mile Beach Clean, the audit found that two thirds (65 per cent) of all branded packaging can be traced back to 12 companies.

Naming the parent companies behind the brands, as well as the brands themselves, the report listed the top 12 polluting companies – dubbed ‘the Dirty Dozen’ – as: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo (owner of Walkers crisps), AB InBev (owner of Stella and Budweiser beer brands), McDonald’s, Mondelez International (owner of Cadbury), Heineken, Tesco, Carlsberg Group, Suntory (owner of Lucozade), Haribo, Mars and Aldi.

Volunteers from across the UK picked up almost 10,000 pieces of branded rubbish linked to 327 companies, with top-of-the-table polluter Coca-Cola branded cans and bottles picked up three times more often than other brands.

Surfers against sewage
Packaging collected for a pollution audit was turned into a sculpture to urge companies to ‘turn off the plastic tap’. 

While lockdown has contributed to more food and drinks being consumed out of home and perhaps ending up as pollution on beaches, PPE used during the pandemic only accounted for 2.5 per cent of unbranded plastic pollution. “We cannot allow polluting industries to use the current health crisis to deflect from their own damaging behaviours and put the blame on the individual – we must demand action now,” said chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, Hugo Tagholm.

Abandoned fishing gear accounted for only 8.6 per cent of all pollution collected at beach locations. As this is often lost or discarded at sea, it can be assumed that much of this material will remain within the ocean rather than being washed up onto beaches, Surfers Against Sewage Said.

Single use plastic and packaging pollution endangers marine life and ecosystems, critical natural environments in their own right, but plastic is also a significant output for the fossil fuel industry as it is made from refining crude oil.

The report and audit of plastic pollution comes in a week when the IPCC has made urgent calls for action to tackle climate change, and made clear that burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the majority (86 per cent) all man-made emissions in the last 10 years.

While brands like Coca-Cola are making strides in using recycled plastic in their products, recent investigations into exported waste ending up in Malaysia and Turkey have proved the flaws in the UK’s recycling and waste disposal infrastructure.

To highlight the problem, Surfers Against Sewage commissioned a supersized industrial pipe spewing plastic onto the beach, made from the plastic collected for the audit, and is calling for either a switch to refills, or a comprehensive ‘deposit return scheme’ for all drinks containers.  

This would mean consumers pay an up-front deposit on an item which would then be redeemed on return of the container. The report estimates that more than half (52 per cent) of the pollution from the Dirty Dozen companies would be captured through such a scheme, including 80 per cent of top polluter Coca-Cola’s products.

The charity also wants more responsibility by the brands themselves, which currently only pay around 10 per cent of the costs of disposing of their products. The government is currently considering introducing an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme in 2023 that will see producers take responsibility for 100 per cent of the costs of managing, recycling, and disposal of their packaging waste, with higher fees being levied if packaging is harder to reuse or recycle.

“Our annual Brand Audit has once again revealed the shocking volume of plastic and packaging pollution coming directly from big companies and some of their best-known brands. Serial offenders including Coca-Cola – which tops the leader board year on year as the worst offender – are still not taking responsibility,” said Tagholm.

Chair in conservation science and Exeter marine strategy lead, Brendan Godley, said: “Plastic packaging is polluting the ocean, impacting marine species and destroying habitats. The findings of Surfers Against Sewage’s Beach Brand Audit highlight the types of pollution that are escaping into the marine environment and the brands that are responsible. I believe that this kind of work is critically important in order to urge companies to urgently reduce their packaging pollution before it is too late.”


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  1. Isn’t it sad to see that when I was a young child (back in the 50’s and 60’s ) such a scheme as the “Bottle Deposit Scheme, not only existed but actually thrived. Many a young child (older ones too) got there pocket money from this scheme! It looks like such schemes are going retrograde at the expense of the planet – do people of all levels really want to destroy our world whilst all they do is talk about it! If companies can not or will not use such schemes the it is down to goverment to ensure they do – NOT NEXT YEAR BUT NOW!

    The Walrus

    1. Well said indeed! We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just put the planet first through using our resources wisely.

  2. I do so agree. We also need to ban plastic bottles, then the companies would have to use glass ones, which could be returned for a deposit refund and reused. The problem with a deposit return scheme is that it would have to be a large enough amount that people would bother to return them and the companies would worry that it would make their product too expensive.
    I also remember as a child that sweets would be bought loose and put in a paper bag, so that even if it was discarded it would just disintegrate harmlessly. I have also started buying my washing detergent as flat strips, which come in a card packet that can be recycled, rather than those big plastic boxes which end up in landfill as our council does not recycle them. I also use shampoo bars and soap bars, so no plastic bottles.

    1. Hi DiNew, Similarly to pesticides, the widespread use of single use plastics is a recent thing. Ask parents and grandparents – there are myriad ways in which reusable, returnable or biodegradable packaging were used but then replaced by cheap ‘grab and go’ plastic packs, increasing profits and reducing jobs. The true cost of throwaway packaging are the huge and devastating environmental and social impacts – which aren’t borne by the companies and their profitmaking, but by ordinary people around the world.

  3. Bottle (grass and plastic) as well as aluminium can return schemes exist is many countries on the continent. You pay approx 10p extra on your drink which you get back when you return them, usually at the supermarket where you do your shopping anyway. It has beed tried and tested and running for many years elsewhere, so what’s stopping the UK from adopting a return scheme? It would create jobs and reduce waste significantly.

  4. I too remember the return system. it brought back some good memories – ‘earning some pennies’ – the value of manufactured items, of small amounts of money, of reusing everything possible and especially not wasting anything!

    I hate Plastic – always have – and now I am forced to buy loads.

    After more than 50 years (not counting my childhood) I am reduced to having to look for milk at the suprermarket. Almost all of which is in plastic!

    Why? Because my doorstep delivery has ended, and Milkandmore have instituted a complex and ‘faceless’ way to order and pay which I found too difficult
    My milkman took good care of me but is now gone.

    When on holiday in europe 12 years ago I saw fresh Milk delivered via a vending machine to customer’s own jug/bottle/ cup etc. SIMPLE. Any chance here?

    1. Definitely agree oldvegiegal – there are so many simple and effective solutions to single use plastic – there just needs to be the political will to make that happen. Consumer choices are creating a demand for alternatives, but it isn’t happening on a wide enough scale or quickly enough by just relying on retailers to respond; many will just continue to choose not to.

    2. With reference to Milk and More’s complex and faceless payment system I would prefer to use that (I agree it can be awkward but like most things the more you use it the easier it gets) than have piles of plastic taking far to long to biodegrade – Just a thought!

      The Walrus

  5. There are some milk vending machines in the UK, there are two near Bristol I know of. Definitely worth an internet search and asking in your local farm shops about it.


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