By: Jed Alegado

The challenge of cleaning up plastic from the world’s oceans is almost too big to contemplate. As has been reported widely, litter has accumulated in five giant ocean patches. The largest, the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is located between Hawaii and California and is said to cover an area 10 percent bigger than the entire country of France. 

According to an NGO named The Ocean Cleanup, “If left to circulate, the plastic will impact our ecosystems, health and economies. Solving it requires a combination of closing the source and cleaning up what has already accumulated in the ocean.”

The problem is that, if left too long, it breaks down into so-called microplastics, tiny buds easily ingested by marine life. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that by 2050 there will more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Within 35 years, according to the foundation, new plastics will consume 20 percent of all oil production within 35 years, up from an estimated 5 percent today. Only 5 percent is recycled, with 40 percent in landfills and the rest in the world’s oceans and other ecosystems.

The recycling industry has been badly hammered by a Chinese decision at the start of 2018 to refuse to allow the import of most recycling materials, causing the price of recycled materials to drop through the floor.  That has raised troubling concerns that, according to an earlier report, wealthier societies like the US and Europe tend to recycle high-quality plastic domestically and export low-worth plastics to Asia, burdening these countries with the occupational and environmental health hazards that arise from processing these materials.

Many times, exporting countries have little idea of where their waste actually goes, according to the report. China’s ban can instigate increased investment in domestic recycling capacity, but can also lead to increased plastic incineration and exportation to other Asian countries besides China, exposing their inhabitants to pollution. 

The biggest contributors to these problems, according to another NGO called Break Free From Plastic, are the world’s favorite soft-drink manufacturers. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé were the most frequent companies identified in 239 cleanups and brand audits spanning 42 countries and six continents conducted in August.

“More than 187,000 pieces of plastic trash were audited, identifying thousands of brands whose packaging relies on the single-use plastics that pollute our oceans and waterways globally,” the NGO said. “Coca-Cola was the top polluter in the global audit, with Coke-branded plastic pollution found in 40 of the 42 participating countries.”

The organization described the brand audit effort as “the most comprehensive snapshot of the worst plastic polluting companies around the world.”

“These brand audits offer undeniable proof of the role that corporations play in perpetuating the global plastic pollution crisis,” said Global Coordinator of Break Free From Plastic Von Hernandez. “By continuing to churn out problematic and unrecyclable throwaway plastic packaging for their products, these companies are guilty of trashing the planet on a massive scale. It’s time they own up and stop shifting the blame to citizens for their wasteful and polluting products.”

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle executives have all responded to the report, saying they are all committed to ultimately making all of their products recyclable. But that is a distant goal and it appears conditions will worsen drastically before they get better.  By one estimate, one dump-truck load of plastic trash goes into the world’s oceans every minute.

In addition to the soft-drink makers, Break Free From Plastic also identified Danone, Mondelez International, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Perfetti van Melle, Mars Incorporated, and Colgate-Palmolive as the most frequent multinational brands collected in cleanups, in that order.

This ranking of multinational companies included only brands that were found in at least 10 of the 42 participating countries.

Overall, polystyrene, which is not recyclable in most locations, was the most common type of plastic found, followed closely by PET, a material used in bottles, containers, and other packaging, the organization found.

Asia’s top producers were Coca-Cola, Perfetti van Melle, and Mondelez International brands. These brands accounted for 30 percent of all branded plastic pollution counted by volunteers across Asia. This year’s brand audits throughout Asia build upon a week-long cleanup and audit at the Philippines’ Freedom Island in 2017, which found Nestlé and Unilever to be the top polluters.

“We pay the price for multinational companies’ reliance on cheap throwaway plastic,” said Greenpeace Southeast Asia – Philippines Campaigner Abigail Aguilar. “We are the ones forced to clean up their plastic pollution in our streets and waterways.

“In the Philippines, we can clean entire beaches and the next day they are just as polluted with plastics. Through brand audits, we can name some of the worst polluters and demand that they stop producing plastic to begin with.”

In North and South America, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé brands were the top polluters identified, accounting for 64 and 70 percent of all the branded plastic pollution, respectively.

“In Latin America, brand audits put responsibility on the companies that produce useless plastics and the governments that allow corporations to place the burden, from extraction to disposal, in mostly vulnerable and poor communities,” said GAIA Coordinator for Latin America Magdalena Donoso. “BFFP members in Latin America are exposing this crisis  and promoting zero waste strategies in connection with our communities.”

In Europe, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé brands were again the top identified polluters, accounting for 45 percent of the plastic pollution found in the audits there. In Australia, 7-Eleven, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s brands were the top polluters identified, accounting for 82 percent of the plastic pollution found. And finally, in Africa, ASAS Group, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble brands were the top brands collected, accounting for 74 percent of the plastic pollution there.

“These brand audits are putting responsibility back where it belongs, with the corporations producing endless amounts of plastics that end up in the Indian Ocean,” said Griffins Ochieng, Programs Coordinator for the Center for Environment Justice and Development in Kenya.

“We held cleanups and brand audits in two locations in Kenya to identify the worst corporate polluters in the region and hold them accountable,” Ochieng said. “It is more urgent than ever, for the sake of communities that rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, health and well-being, to break free from plastic.

While the brand audits don’t provide a complete picture of companies’ plastic pollution footprints, they are the best indication to date of the worst plastic polluters globally. The Break Free From Plastic movement is urging companies to end their reliance on single-use plastics, prioritizing innovation and alternative delivery systems for products. 

Jed Alegado is a Philippines-based environmentalist