plastic Coke bottle littering beach

Plastics are choking the world’s oceans. A staggering 21 to 34 billion single-use plastic bottles end up in oceans annually, according to Oceana. To track the source of this plastic pollution, Break Free From Plastic’s Global Brand Audit Report examines which companies manufacture the bottles.

Its fourth annual brand audit brings thousands of volunteers together across the globe to count and document the brand names on plastic litter. This year, over 11,000 volunteers across 45 countries gathered 330,493 pieces of plastic. Of these, 58% were legibly marked with a consumer brand.

Which Company Is Creating the Most Plastic Pollution?

The dirty crown goes to Coca-Cola. Sadly, the company ranked #1 for the fourth year in a row with a count of 20,000 products. This is more than the second and third top-polluting companies combined. The company markets 500 brands of beverages and water across the globe and manufactured 117 billion single-use plastic bottles in 2018, according to its own estimates. Yet Coca-Cola says it is cleaning up its act.

Coco-cola plastic pollution

In 2018, Coca-Cola launched its “World Without Waste” campaign and pledged to recycle a used bottle or can for every one the company sells by 2030. Although this seems noble, there is little evidence on streets and beaches that the campaign has been successful so far.

Coca-Cola has also introduced a 100% recycled bottle for some of its products in some North American markets. The move will reduce its use of virgin plastic by 20% compared to 2018. Although this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the issue of plastic pollution. In fact, Greenpeace criticized Coca-Cola after the announcement for not addressing the rapidly increasing use of single-use plastics.

Who Else Are Major Plastic Polluters?

The other main culprits are PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Mondelēz International, Philip Morris International, Danone, Mars, Inc., and Colgate-Palmolive. Pepsi has also recently announced it will half the use of virgin plastics across all brands and use 50% recycled plastic by 2030. In response, Greenpeace urged Pepsi to reuse or refill bottles and find solutions to replace single-use plastics.

Top 10 corporate plastic polluters

Why Are Single-use Plastics So Harmful?

As the world works to reduce emissions to slow climate change, much of the focus is on energy. Although this work is critical, the impact of plastic on the climate crisis is largely going unnoticed. The sad reality is that plastic fuels the climate crisis and that 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels.

Plastic is a critical driver in climate change, which the report mentions repeatedly. Petrochemicals, the type of fossil fuels made into plastic, account for 14% of oil use. The production of plastics is very polluting, especially in the refining process. Also, plastic pollution is disproportionately impacting low-income communities, communities of color, and youth.

Plastic greenhouse emissions

Break Free From Plastics is calling on top polluters to reinvent their business models for a cleaner world. It doesn’t believe that voluntary corporate pledges have proven sufficient in resolving the plastic pollution crisis and calls on governments to hold corporations accountable.

Are We on Track To Reduce Plastic Pollution Globally?

According to the Global Brand Audit Report, plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years if left unchecked. The issue has come under considerable public scrutiny in recent years. According to a 2019 study by Shelton Group, 65% of respondents said they were very or extremely concerned about plastic in the oceans.

Yet, the actions of corporations — and government policies to hold them accountable — have been feeble compared to the scale of the issue and public outcry.

How Can Individuals Help Lessen Plastic Pollution?

Avoid products with plastic packaging and opt for reusable and refillable packing when possible. Whenever possible, avoid drinking bottled water and seek clean sources of tap water instead. If water quality is a concern, use a non-plastic water filter to remove pollutants. Some businesses will also allow patrons to use reusable cups at soda fountains.

Communicate to companies, telling them you want them to reduce plastic pollution and showing your support for phasing out single-use plastics. Also, support local, state, and federal policies that hold companies responsible for their pollution or reduce plastic waste. For example, experts believe that bottle deposits increase recycling rates in the states that have them.

When you do consume plastic bottles, make sure to recycle them. Use the Earth911 recycling locator to learn about recycling options in your area.

Infographics from Break Free From Plastic’s Global Brand Audit Report; feature image courtesy of maria mendiola, Unsplash

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.