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.
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.”