‘Biggest plastic polluters’ accused of hypocrisy; Unilever, Danone, and Coca-Cola respond

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/OperationShooting
Pic: GettyImages/OperationShooting

Related tags: Plastic, Recycling, Coca cola, Unilever, Danone

A new report has criticised ‘large multinational companies’ for backing plastic-related legislation in certain geographies while lobbying against it in others.

Industry actively tries to stop attempts to restrict the use of plastics, ‘vigorously’ lobbies against legislation, greenwashes via commitments that focus on end-of-pipe solutions, and shifts responsibility onto consumers, according to the Changing Markets Foundation.

In a new report, titled 'Talking Trash: The corporate playbook of false solutions to the plastic crisis’, the campaigner has focused on the ’10 biggest plastic polluters’ - a list that includes Coca-Cola, Danone, Mars Incorporated, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.

Having analysed these businesses’ voluntary and group initiatives across 15 countries and regions, Changing Markets argues they use these initiatives ‘as a tactic to delay and derail progressive legislation’.

Changing Markets has also accused these food and drink majors of ‘distracting consumers and governments with empty promises and false solutions’.

‘Hypocrisy’

“Our analysis found a shocking amount of overlap between corporate membership of the initiatives that claim to solve plastic pollution and trade associations and lobby groups that actively work to undermine ambitious legislation,” ​Changing Markets noted in its report.

Concerning specific companies, Changing Markets claims to have revealed the ‘hypocrisy’ of large multinationals. Coca-Cola, for example, “recently proclaimed support for some legislation in the EU but still lobbies against it in Africa, China, and the United States,” ​it wrote.

Some of Coca-Cola’s progress in meeting its voluntary commitments to date was also highlighted. According to Changing Markets, the drinks manufacturer set itself the goal of selling soft drinks in bottles made from 25% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) in 1990, “but, three decades later, their bottles still contain 10% rPET”.

Changing Markets suggests this illustrates companies’ disregard for voluntary targets, saying they view them as simple ‘paper promises’.

Unilever is another business with ambitious plastic commitments. The FMCG has pledged to reduce its use of virgin plastic by 50% by 2025. However, at the same time, Changing Markets has accused Unilever – and others – of ‘pushing’ single-use plastics on countries like India, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The report takes particular issue with Unilever’s multi-laminate plastic sachets, which it says are ‘practically impossible’ to recycle conventionally.

The ‘low hanging fruit’ of mandatory collection

For Changing Markets, mandatory collection – in combination with recycled-content targets – is the way forward. It is a ‘proven method’ to reduce plastic pollution and virgin-plastic production, it noted, and incentivises product redesign.

deposit return scheme Aleksei Sarifulin
Despoit return schemes have a proven track record of achievement, according to the report / Pic: GettyImages/Aleksej Sarifulin

“Deposit return schemes (DRS), in particular, has a track record of achievement – and is a low-hanging fruit opportunity to help set countries on a path of greater reuse and circularity.

“Until companies give up their game, call for mandatory collection and producer responsibility, and stop delaying and derailing legislation and distracting from their true accountability for the plastics crisis, they are doing not more than talking trash.”

Changing Markets added: “Such solutions need to be enshrined in legislation, because the industry has failed to address the problem through voluntary measures.”

Danone appears to be one of very few companies to have referenced this need for ‘effective collection systems’, noted the campaigner. Its express support for DRS is ‘commendable’, it continued. “Danone also says it will help to meet – or go beyond – mandatory collection targets, as set by regulators worldwide.”

While the French dairy major is one of the more vocal on the importance of strengthening systems for collection, Changing Markets is nevertheless ‘disappointed’ that Danone is not calling for over 90% mandatory collection of bottles in all geographies. Neither is the company pledging to support DRS schemes globally.

“It seems Danone is only willing to support such targets in regions where regulators have already made the first move.”

Big brands respond

In response to the Talking Trash report, a Danone spokesperson told this publication the business is ‘perfectly on track to achieve its ambition’.

More than being on track to achieve our aim of having 100% of our packaging either reusable, recyclable or compostable, we have lifted up our ambition by committing to reintegrate at least 50% of recycled materials in all of our packaging by 2025 including plastic. “

FoodNavigator asked Danone whether it would consider calling for mandatory collection legislation around the world, to which the spokesperson responded: “In all countries where we operate, Danone works with relevant stakeholders to strengthen collection and recycling systems. Today, we systematically look to collaborate with private companies and public authorities at international, regional, national and local levels to optimize Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) including DRS systems.

“By 2025, we will have initiated or supported collection and recycling initiatives in every one of our top 20 markets, representing around 90% of sales.”

coca cola lovelyday12
Pic: GettyImages/lovelyday12

Unilever was the first major global consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastic reduction across its portfolio. A spokesperson told this publication it is ‘under no illusion’ we need to get to a circular economy.

“We must go further faster, which is why we’re committed to halving our use of virgin plastic, including an absolute reduction by 2025.”

While emphasising the importance of innovative packaging design, Unilever said there is ‘no single solution or quick fix’. It is ‘fundamentally rethinking’ its approach to packaging and products, we were told.

“To reach our goals, we are introducing innovative packaging materials, creating new business models and using more recycled plastic, and doing so at unprecedented speed. Collaboration is also crucial. Working alongside the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and other partners, we believe we can create a plastics system which is truly circular by design.”

In response to Coca-Cola's failure to achieve its rPET target, a spokesperson from The Coca-Cola Company told this publication the experience provided an opportunity.

“We launched the first bottle containing rPET in 1991 and had a global goal of 25% rPET in all our plastic bottles that we did not meet. This miss provided an opportunity to learn.”

The business said bottles with 100% recycled plastic are now available in 18 markets around the world – and this number is ‘continually growing’.

“In recent weeks, the local Coca-Cola businesses in Norway and Netherlands announced that they are now using 100% rPET across their portfolio. And in Great Britain, we are preparing to announce that we have reached 50% rPET across our packaging, another step in our journey to 100% rPET in all our packs.”

Related topics: Business, Beverage, Sustainability

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