One of the most universal experiences we have now as humans is living with plastic pollution. Take a walk on a street in New York, Lagos, or Mumbai and you’ll see the same ugly sight: plastic bottles and potato chip wrappers littering the streets, getting swept away by the wind, and ending up in the ocean.
This is not just anecdotal. Take it from BreakFreeFromPlastic, a three-year-old organization consisting of nearly 1,500 companies working to tackle plastic pollution. The organization issues an annual ranking of the world’s top plastic polluters. The list takes a lot of work to produce. This year, the organization engaged 72,541 volunteers across 51 countries to conduct 484 brand audits. The volunteers collected plastic waste close to where they lived, amounting to 476,423 pieces of plastic, 43% of which was clearly marked with a consumer brand. Plastic was cataloged in every part of the globe, including remote regions of Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Bhutan.
Using this data, BreakFreeFromPlastic tracked more than 8,000 brands responsible for the trash. This year, the top 10 global polluters were Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Mondelez International, Unilever, Mars, P&G, Colgate-Palmolive, Phillip Morris, and Perfetti Van Melle.
It’s not a big shocker that giant corporations that make bottled drinks—C0ca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo—are the world’s biggest plastic polluters. But what’s a little disturbing is that these three companies were named the top plastic polluters last year as well, and none of them appear to have done anything significant to change their place in this shameful ranking.
A total of 11,732 pieces of plastic were labeled with a Coca-Cola brand (which includes Dasani, Sprite, and Fanta among its 500 brands) in 37 countries across four continents. This placed it far ahead of the next two polluters. Nestlé (whose brands include Poland Spring, KitKat, and Haagen Dazs) came next, with volunteers discovering 4,846 pieces of plastic in 31 countries. PepsiCo (whose brands include Lay’s, Mountain Dew, and Aquafina) came in third, with volunteers discovering 3,362 pieces of plastic in 28 countries.
In many ways, this ranking reflects how large and global these companies are. All of them produce a large range of food and household products, and they have not dramatically changed their approach to using more sustainable materials or recycled packaging.
These brands have expanded to every part of the globe, selling their plastic-encased fizzy drinks, potato chips, shampoo, and toothpaste to people everywhere. Developed countries have waste-management systems that collect our plastic, which is then either put in landfills, incinerated, or recycled. (Experts believe that only 9% of all plastic is recycled.) This means that the sheer quantity of plastic in these countries is often hidden from view. But in developing countries without good waste-management facilities, plastic waste is much more visible, littering the streets and washing ashore on beaches.
And pollution disproportionately hurts the poor. “Poverty is also often used as a justification for some of the worst forms of plastic packaging,” like single-serving packets of things like ketchup, the report says. “Companies claim that they are ‘pro-poor’ by allowing those on low daily incomes to purchase goods such as shampoo and soy sauce.” But this means that the poor are also saddled with all of the costs of disposing of this waste, and also with the health risks associated with plastic pollution. Indeed, one report estimates that between 400,000 and 1 million people die annually in low- and middle-income countries because of diseases caused by mismanaged waste.
The BreakFreeFromPlastic report points out that manufacturing plastic from fossil fuels causes air pollution that causes long-term changes to reproductive, digestive, neurological, and respiratory systems. Once products have been made, chemicals in plastic leach into food and water, causing a host of other medical problems, including hormonal disruption and cancer. Even after we dispose of plastic, it can still harm us. Plastic does not biodegrade, so it will continue to exist for hundreds of years after we throw it out. It does, however, break into tiny pieces called microplastics, which end up in the water. In fact, most humans ingest enough plastic to make a credit card every single week. We don’t fully understand how these microplastics can cause harm to our bodies, but initial studies show that they are toxic to our livers.
Plastic also contributes to climate change. The manufacturing of plastic, and its disposal, creates a large amount of greenhouse gas. According to a recent report, the production and incineration of plastic in 2019 will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, equal to the emissions of 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal plants. BreakFreeFromPlastic estimates that if consumers continue using plastics at the same rate, by 2050, plastic use and production could end up consuming 10-13% of the remaining carbon budget.
The reason plastic is so widespread is it’s cheap to manufacture. But when you consider the impact it has on our health and the environment, it’s clear that plastic is actually extremely expensive. It costs people a lot of money to manage illnesses with a known link to plastic. It costs taxpayers a lot of money to manage plastic waste in cities. It will cost a lot of money to avert the worst impacts of climate change accelerated by plastic production and disposal.
And of course, there are costs that we cannot quantify. Consider all the people who have already died because of health problems that could be traced back, in part, to plastic chemicals. Or the momentous changes to our way of life that global warming has already caused and will continue to cause in the years to come.
Given how much we know about plastic’s impact on the world, should these plastic polluters be made to pay for all of this destruction? It’s something worth considering. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to put an exact price on the damage plastic causes to the planet and humans. But perhaps it’s time for economists to begin quantifying it so that governments can impose taxes on these companies for healthcare costs, carbon emissions, and cleanup.
BreakFreeFromPlastic uses its report to demand that the large consumer-packaged-goods companies on the list quickly redesign their products to move away from the single-use plastic model. This is an important step for sure, one that they should implement as quickly as possible. But given what we now know about how plastic hurts us, shouldn’t they also be forced to pay for what they have already done to harm us and our planet?