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Coca-Cola’s terrifying plastic problem

Rich Gower explains the impact of plastic pollution on people living in poverty, as featured on BBC One’s Panorama.

Written by Richard Gower | 25 Oct 2021

November 15, 2019 - University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - A waste picker collecting plastic bottles at the university dump at twilight. Daniel Msirikale/Tearfund
Filming an interview for today’s BBC One Panorama documentary was one of the scarier experiences of my life, but nowhere near as terrifying as the topic we were discussing – Coca-Cola’s plastic pollution problem.  
 
In the Philippines – one of the countries featured on Panorama – we estimate that around 1 billion Coca-Cola bottles are burnt or dumped each year. That’s nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every day.* 
 
Tearfund works with partners in more than 50 low- and middle-income countries, and unfortunately our partners see plastic being burnt in backyards, on street corners and in open dumps every single day.  Here’s Nigerian activist and friend of Tearfund Ulan Garba Matta, talking on a previous BBC documentary about the effects: 
 
‘The smoke is toxic...  people inhale it day in, day out. A lot of these people out here making a living [at a street market in Jos] are actually poisoning their lungs.’ 
 
Ulan herself has been woken many times, choking because of the smoke coming through her window.
 
In addition to these toxic fumes, burning plastic also produces one particularly powerful climate pollutant: black carbon. Black carbon doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for very long, but it has a warming effect so powerful that it heats the globe about 2,000 times more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. Its effect is so significant that the emissions from burning Coca-Cola's plastic in just six countries (the Philippines, India, China, Nigeria, Brazil and Mexico) equate to as much as three-quarters of the company’s global transport and distribution emissions.
 
Plastic pollution is damaging people’s health, and it’s driving the climate crisis. That’s why it’s a big priority for Tearfund.  
 
Coca-Cola is the biggest plastic polluter globally, but it’s not the only one: we track the progress of four of the biggest plastic polluters: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever. And we’ve been pressing them to ‘stop the rubbish’ since we launched our Rubbish Campaign in 2019.  
 

So what should these companies do?  

First and foremost, Coca-Cola needs to reduce dramatically the amount of throwaway plastic that it uses. They already have a tried-and-tested system of refillable bottles (in both plastic and glass) that they could roll out much more widely. At the moment, only one in five bottles uses this refillable system (or one in ten packages if you include Coca-Cola’s cans and cartons). Yet Coca-Cola’s current commitment to reduce its use of virgin plastic is significantly weaker than the commitments of PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever.

In addition to reducing their use of throwaway plastic, companies also need to take responsibility for collecting what’s left. PepsiCo is the weakest of the four in this area: they have yet to make a commitment to collect their plastic waste in poorer countries, unlike Coca-Cola and Unilever. (Nestlé has made a commitment, but not for all countries.) 

When it comes to collection, working with waste pickers is crucial. Globally, they collect almost 60 per cent of all the plastic that’s recycled by going door to door, picking from the streets, or collecting from dumpsites. They prevent large amounts of plastic from being burnt and dumped – saving lives and cutting costs for business and government – but this is rarely recognised. In addition to respecting waste pickers’ rights and helping ensure they are paid enough to provide for their families, companies need to give them a seat at the table in designing and implementing the systems for collecting plastic.  
 
Around the world, Tearfund’s partners are wrestling with the problems created by throwaway plastic. As you can see for yourself on Panorama, the scale of the problem can be terrifying.  But in millions of communities around the world, people have stepped up to tell companies ‘Stop the rubbish’, and things are starting to change.

Watch BBC One’s Panorama documentary on plastic pollution, featuring Tearfund’s advocacy team.

Watch video

Find out more about Tearfund’s work on plastics

Although we’ve wrapped up the first phase of our Rubbish Campaign, we continue to press companies and governments to take ambitious action to address plastic pollution, and to alleviate the effects on the poorest people. At the same time, we are working with communities to establish local social enterprises that collect and process waste, including plastic. Our Bin Twinning campaign supports these start-ups. You can find a series of short articles about our work here, and read our in-depth research and resources here

* This figure is an update to that released in our 2020 report The Burning Question, which includes calculations for the Philippines and five other middle-income countries, for plastic pollution caused by Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.

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Written by Richard Gower

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