Of the top 15 global fast-moving consumer goods brands, four companies - Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever - own all but three. Their dominant market position in these sectors means they hold enormous power and ability to influence. This power can be used for good but, at the moment, the evidence suggests they are high on the list of plastic polluters.
In Australia, most of us would be familiar with at least some of the many brands they collectively own. It’s possible that we are customers of these companies, perhaps even regular customers, without even realising. They are similarly pervasive in low- and middle-income countries. Coca-Cola, for example, sells more drinks in India than it does in any country in Europe.
Of the many single-use plastics distributed by companies like these and contributing to the plastic pollution crisis in developing countries, two are particularly worth highlighting: single-portion plastic sachets and plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) PET bottles.
Single-portion plastic sachets (made from a multi-laminate material) are used for products as diverse as coffee, toothpaste and washing powder. Their uptake in some low- and middle-income countries has been huge and they are one of the most visible - and harmful - examples of plastic expansion.
For companies, these items are easier and cheaper to produce and transport than bottles with tamper-proof lids. For the consumer, they can offer greater convenience, accessibility and, in some cases, affordability. However, a 2018 survey on the impacts of plastic pollution on poverty found that plastic sachets were the most commonly identified item among mismanaged solid waste. Hundreds of billions of sachets are sold around the world every year and, currently, there is no effective way to recycle the discarded packaging.
Plastic PET bottles, most commonly used for soft drinks and water, make up the second largest category of plastic packaging used globally. The same 2018 survey found they were also the second most frequently identified item in mismanaged solid waste (after sachets). In 2015, global consumption reached 471 billion bottles. If those bottles were lined up end to end, they would stretch to Mars.
In theory, PET bottles are recyclable. In reality, not many - in proportionate terms - actually are. Globally only 14 percent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. Even in places where the capacity to recycle does exist, recycling rates are shockingly low. In the developing countries where there isn’t any recycling capacity, PET bottles just add to the rising tide of plastic pollution.
A number of recent waste audits and surveys have identified branded packaging from multinational companies to be among the most commonly found plastic waste. This reflects their shift away from reusable and recyclable packaging towards a cheaper, throwaway model - a shift that has come despite research showing that no other packaging system could match returnable glass bottles on energy efficiency and reducing waste and pollution.
Multinational companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are selling billions of products in single-use plastic packaging in poorer countries. They are doing this in the full knowledge that the people living there have no safe way to get rid of the plastic waste - no choice but to burn, discard or live among it. The harm this does to people, to their communities and to the natural environment is both alarming and heart-breaking.
Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever bear a responsibility for the packaging they produce and sell - particularly in markets without waste collection systems. While there have been some steps in the right direction, they have not yet made the commitments that are needed to adequately address the problem. They can do better. That’s why TEAR’s Rubbish Campaign is bringing together the voices of Christians in this country and around the world to say that more needs to be done. Each of us has the opportunity to use our voices to speak up and call on these companies to do the right thing - to use their power for good, not rubbish.