These are the world’s biggest plastic polluters

 ·1 May 2024

Only 56 companies are responsible for more than 50% of the world’s branded plastic pollution, with six of these companies accounting for 24%.

This is according to a new study titled Global producer responsibility for plastic pollution published in the journal Science Advances.

It identifies the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, and Nestlé as the world’s worst-known brand plastic polluters.

Plastic production worldwide has increased by over 100% since 2000, reaching around 400 million metric tonnes annually.

In South Africa, approximately 2.4 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is generated annually.

This surge in production has resulted in a corresponding increase in plastic waste, which can now be found in virtually every part of the planet.

As such, researchers wanted to attempt to quantify and locate the sources of pollution whilst providing viable alternatives to counter this scourge.

“One of the main challenges of addressing plastic pollution is identifying where the plastic products come from and who produced them,” said the researchers.

Plastic polluting the ocean. Photo: Rich Carey

The study

The international team of over 100,000 volunteers conducted a five-year study across 84 countries (including South Africa) and six continents, collecting and surveying more than 1.87 million items of plastic waste

Unbranded plastic items comprised 52% of the total mean. The paper noted that “assigning company ownership to these unbranded plastic items is not possible with current techniques.”

“Without evidence for the producer identity of unbranded plastic, we focus the following investigation on branded plastic,” said the researchers.

The top 10 brands pinpointed for the most amount of branded plastic pollution globally were:

  • The Coca-Cola Company (11%);
  • PepsiCo (5%);
  • Nestlé (3%);
  • Danone (3%);
  • Altria (2%);
  • Bakhresa Group (~2%);
  • Wings (>2%)
  • Unilever (~1.5%)
  • Mayora Indah (~1.5%)
  • Mondelez International (>1.5%)

Thirteen companies were found to have an individual contribution of 1% or more of the total branded plastic observed in the audit events.

Top 13 branded plastic polluters. Graph: Global producer responsibility for plastic pollution

The bulk of the rubbish collected from these companies is single-use packaging for food, beverage, and tobacco products.

“56 companies were responsible for greater than 50% of the branded plastic, and 19,586 companies were responsible for all of the branded plastic,” it said in the paper.

“It is important to note that the contributions of the top companies may be an underestimation because there were brands that were not attributed to a company, and there were many unbranded objects,” it added.

“Brand names can be used to hold plastic companies accountable for their items found polluting the environment,” said the researchers.

According to the study, the prevalence of food and beverage companies, particularly those that specialise in single-use plastic products, above the trendline in the below image and retail and household goods companies below the line suggests that:

  • Single-use packaging disproportionately contributes to branded plastic pollution;
  • Waste management systems play a role in addressing the problem but are insufficient on their own to eliminate plastic emissions to the environment.
Correlation between plastic produced and branded plastic pollution. Graphic: Global producer responsibility for plastic pollution

Going forward

“We conclude that effectively addressing global plastic pollution requires corporate producers of plastic waste to reduce plastics in their products and avoid regrettable alternatives,” said the researchers.

This is particularly done by phasing out nonessential and avoidable single-use products.

The researchers say that this can be done by:

  • Safe and sustainable product designs that cut global demand for new products while increasing reusability, repairability, and recyclability;
  • Investing in non-plastic alternatives with proven better safety and environmental profiles;
  • Supporting alternative distribution models (e.g., refill-reuse), which will lessen pollution.

Read: The best and worst South African towns and cities for air quality

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