Plastic Polluters Report

Which 10 companies are the worst plastic polluters?

Faye Turner

19 min Read Time | November 26th 2021

Plastic, plastic everywhere....

It might feel like we've been talking about plastic consumption and reduction for years, and while many more of us are increasingly conscious about bringing our reusable bottles everywhere and avoiding the purchase of 'single-use' plastic, this year's report from NGO 'Break Free From Plastic' does not appear to bring us any great hope that this has been enough. 

What it does do, is highlight where the core of the problem lies and where we should expect the driving change to come from. In their latest report to identify the most prevalent plastic polluters (which was the outcome of global beach cleanups in 45 countries using 11,000 volunteers), Break Free From Plastic aims to push more responsibility onto the brands producing the plastic. Not only that, but with 99% of plastic being made using fossil fuels, they are shifting the conversation onto the climate crisis too, hoping to hold big companies accountable for their hand in both problems.

Much like us at Impaakt in fact, we also believe it is essential companies are accountable for their impact on the environment, so below you'll find extracts from our platform that explain how each brand contributes to the plastic problem and where they sit in the ranking of the top plastic polluters.

Here are the top 10 companies that are the worst plastic polluters in the world as reported by Break Free From Plastic.

Plastic Polluters Report

1. Coca-Cola: "Coca-Cola is the Top Global Polluter of 2021, using 3Mn tonnes of virgin plastics a year."

Article Extract: Coca-Cola claims 90% of its packaging is currently recyclable where infrastructure exists7;p4. Unfortunately, 91% of plastics worldwide end up in landfills10, which means that in spite of CC's recyclable design, 3.08Mn t of the company's plastics are landfilled.

In 2021, Coca-Cola pledged to introduce recycled plastic bottles and consume 50% recycled material in its bottles and cans by 20309. The company also developed the first 100% plant-based bottle prototype11. Despite CC's efforts, Coca-Cola was named the #1 Top Global Polluter of 2021 based on a study that analyzed 330,493 pieces of plastic6;p1-3. Since 2018, the recorded plastic by the company has more than doubled, showing the company's initiatives have had little impact6;p19.

CC's plastic waste is nearly 1% of global annual plastic production and equals the waste generated by 12.5Mn people a year12.

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2. Pepsico: "PepsiCo is the 2nd Top Global Plastic Polluter of 2021, using 2.3Mn tonnes of plastic a year."

Article Extract: Pepsico is the 2nd largest food and beverage company globally in 2019 based on sales6. The company has failed to disclose its total packaging waste (PW) or its composition. However, based on data from a third source, Pepsico generates 2.3Mn tonnes of plastic PW a year, of which 0% is reusable5. Assuming Pepsico's PW composition is similar to its rival, Coca-Cola, it can be estimated that plastic waste represents 45% of the total PW10;p70, bringing the company's total waste to around 5Mn tonnes.

Pepsico claims 87% of its packaging is compostable, recyclable, or biodegradable9. However, 91% of plastics worldwide end up in landfills11, which means that in spite of Pepsico's recyclable design, 2.09Mn t of the company's plastics are landfilled yearly.

The company has committed to reducing the use of virgin plastic in its bottles by 20% (2018 baseline) by 20258;p13 and pledged to cut its virgin plastic use by 50% by 20307;p3. However, its PW initiatives and pledges have proven of little impact as, according to an independent report, PepsiCo is the #2 Top Plastic Global Polluter, remaining in the top 3 since 20187;p3.

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3. Unilever "Unilever is the third top plastic polluter of 2021, using over 690,000 tonnes of plastic packaging."

Article Extract: Unilever (U) was the fourth largest FMCG company in 20186. It has not disclosed its total packaging waste production. However, Unilever used 690,000 tonnes of plastics in 80% of its operations in 20202. Thus, Unilever's total plastic use could be estimated at around 863,000 t2.

The company claims 50% of its plastic packaging is compostable, reusable, or recyclable2. Sadly, as only 10% of plastic is currently recycled1, around 776,205 t of U's plastic still ends up in landfills every year.

From 2017 levels, U's plastic use has only decreased by around 1.5%. By 2025, Unilever aims to achieve an absolute plastic reduction of 100,000 tonnes (a 12% reduction from 2020). Currently, 11% of Unilever's plastic is post-consumer recycled, a figure the company has pledged to increase to 25% in five years5. In 2018, this figure stood at 1%, showing the company has made progress on this matter11.

In spite of this, Unilever was found to be the third Top Plastic Global Polluter in 2021 based on an independent study that analyzed samples of plastics not properly disposed of. This shows the company's initiatives are currently having little impact10;p16 .

Unilever's total plastic waste equals 1% of the plastic used by the food and beverage industry3 and is equivalent to the waste generated by 3.2Mn people a year, considering the avg. person generates 0.27 t of waste annually8.

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4. Nestlé: Nestlé is the world's 4th top plastic polluter of 2021, using ≈1.3Mn t of plastic packaging a year

Article Extract: Nestlé is one of the biggest FMCG corporations in the world with a massive plastic footprint with over 2,000 brands in over 180 countries6 5. Nestlé used 1.3Mn tonnes of plastic packaging and a total of ≈3.9Mn t of plastic across all of its operations in 20203. Its total packaging waste, however, totaled 4.5Mn t, making plastic packaging 29% of Nestlé's total2.

The company claims 88% of its packaging and 62% of its plastic packaging is recyclable or reusable2. In spite of its recyclable design, 91% of plastics worldwide still end up in landfills, which means that around 1.18Mn t of the company's plastic packagings are landfilled yearly8.

By 2025, Nestlé has pledged to reduce its use of virgin plastics by 33% aside from making 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable4. The company is reevaluating the use of unnecessary plastics (like sachets), simplifying its packaging structures, and investing €1.9Bn over the next years to develop new materials and meet its 2025 targets4. In spite of these efforts, Nestlé was found to be the fourth top plastic polluter of 20216;p16.

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5. Procter & Gamble: "In FY19/20, P&G plastic packaging waste equaled the yearly waste produced by ~7.7M people."

Article Extract: P&G is a company involved in the provision of consumer packaged goods5. In FY19/20, P&G used ~705k t of plastic packaging and ~840k t of paper packaging, bringing P&G’s total PW to ~1.5M t6;p103,131. P&G sells sanitary pads and diapers, a major source of plastic waste14. Of the 3.6M t of diapers landfilled worldwide, 900k t can be attributed to P&G considering the company has a 25% global market share12 11;p14. In Europe, 590k t of waste is generated for menstrual products13. If we consider P&G's market share (25%) and the fact it sells 22% of its products in the region11;p2, it can be roughly estimated P&G generated 670.5k t of menstrual products worldwide. Thus P&G's baby and sanitary product waste is estimated at 1.57Mn t, its total product waste at 3.1Mn t and total plastic waste at 2.3M t.

Unfortunately, 91% of plastics in the world end up in landfills, which suggests ~2.1M t of P&G’s plastics were landfilled8. Considering that on avg. a person generates 0.27t of waste annually, P&G's plastic waste is equal to the waste produced by ~7.7M people10,6;p103.

P&G aims to make its PW 100% recyclable or reusable by 20306;p103. In 2021, it rolled out a refill program for its shampoo brands in Europe, in one of the company's efforts to achieve its 50% virgin petroleum reduction pledge by 20306;p104. However, according to a survey by an NGO, P&G is part of the top 10 plastic polluting companies9;p2.

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Plastic beach

6. Mondelēz International: "Mondelez International's packaging waste equals waste generated by 1.11 million US citizens in 2020."

Article Extract: Mondelez International (MI) is a US-based snack company1 with brands like Cadbury, Oreo, and Toblerone3;p5.

MI reports a total of 902,500 t of packaging in 20203;p36. The company's packaging mix consists of 410,500 t of corrugated PW (46%), 277,000 t of paper (31%), 140,500 t of flexible plastics, 49,000 t of rigid plastics, 15,500 t of glass, and 10,000 t of metal3;p36. Thus, 79% of MI's packaging is non-plastic while the remaining 21% consists of 75% lightweight flexible packaging (LFP)3;p36.

MI reports that 94% of its packaging is recyclable3;p36. However, because of collection and recycling challenges, only 2% (3,790 t) of the company's plastic packaging (PP) is recycled3;p36.

MI's recycling initiatives include making all packaging recyclable, having 5% recycled content in PP, and recycling labeling on all packs by 20253;p36. The company also targets a 5% and 25% reduction in virgin plastic use in overall PP and rigid PP respectively3;p36. MI previously achieved a 2012 goal to reduce 65,000 t in packaging by 2020, exceeding it by 3,000 t3;p10,36.

In spite of this, as of 2021, MI is still the sixth top plastic polluter worldwide based on an independent study that analyzed PW on beaches8;p16.

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Beach plastic pollution

7. Philip Morris International: "PM is among the top ten plastic polluters; its 2020 plastic waste equals ~5.4M people's yearly waste."

Article Extract: Phillip Morris (PM), is a tobacco company involved in the manufacturing & sale of cigarettes, tobacco, etc5. It serves ~150M customers globally6.

In 2020, PM total packaging waste was ~428,140t of which 91% was paper waste, 6% (25,470 t) was plastic waste, 1% was aluminum waste, and 2% of other waste7;p123. PM sold 800B cigarettes and 24.4B units of heated tobacco products in 202111,12. Considering the avg. weight of a cigarette butt is 0.35g & IQOS' is 121g, PM generated ~280,000t of cigarette waste (100% plastic15) & ~3M t of IQOS waste. As IQOS batteries weight 69g16, around 1.7M t of hazardous waste and 1.3M t of plastic were produced by PM's IQOS14,13;p1. Thus, PM's total product waste adds up to 3.7M t, out of which almost 54% (1.6M t) is plastic.

PM sourced ~127,000 t of plastic in 2020 but did not disclose how much came from recycled sources or how much was recyclable7;p113. Considering 91% of plastic waste ends up in landfills, an estimated ~1.45M t of PM’s plastics were landfilled8,7. As an avg. a person generates 0.27t of waste annually, PM’s total plastic waste is equal to the waste produced by ~5.4M people in 20209,6;p113.

Through product design, educational campaigns, and collection schemes, PM aims to reduce its plastic waste by 50% by 2025. However, according to an NGO survey, PM is part of the top 10 plastic polluting companies in the world10;p2. Despite PM's aims, its plastics are affectively ending up in landfills9;p2,6;p122,125.

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8. Danone: "Danone is the eighth top plastic polluting company of 2021, using 716,500 t of plastic packaging."

Article Extract: Danone generated 1.46Mn tonnes of packaging waste in 20206:p5. Out of this, 716,500 t (49%) were plastics6:p5. The company claims 81% of its packaging and 67% of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. However, considering only 9% of plastic waste is effectively recycled, 652,015 tonnes of the company's plastics still end up being landfilled7.

To surpass this hurdle, the company has invested in developing recycling infrastructure in 7 countries where collection systems are informal. By 2025, Danone aims to support these initiatives in 20 of its markets, where the company derives 90% of sales. With the same timeline, the company pledged to make 25% of its plastic packaging from recycled materials10.

Despite the company's efforts, it was the eighth top plastic polluting company in 202112;p16. Being one of the biggest contributors to plastic wastes7, Danone's virgin fossil-based plastics still represent 89% of its total plastic waste8. Further, while plastic constitutes 49% of the total packaging at Danone, only 10.3% of it comes from recycled materials6;p5.

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9. Mars "Named the 9th worst plastic polluter."

Mars is known for its confectionery products such as Mars bars, Snickers, Twix, Milky Way bars, M&M's and Skittles. Many of which are products wrapped in plastic. Mars was named 9th in the Break Free from Plastic report, the company actually increased plastic production in 2020, in 2019 they had an annual footprint of 184k tonnes.

Whilst it appears Mars are making efforts to reduce their plastic or find innovative ways to change, alongside their commitment to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, it seems they are a long way off when looking at these results.

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10. Colgate-Palmolive: "With nearly 262,000 tonnes of plastic packaging, Colgate-Palmolive is 2021's top 10 Plastic Polluter

Article Extract: Colgate-Palmolive (C-P) is a worldwide operating consumer products company with brands like Colgate and Ajax under its portfolio6. In 2020, the company reported having used 306,134 tonnes of fiber-based packaging, 12,409 t of metal packaging, and 261,711 t of plastic packaging, bringing the total packaging waste to 580,254 t5;p4. C-P claims 83% and 69% of its packaging and plastic packaging is technically recyclable. However, considering only 19% of solid waste2 and 9% of plastics get recycled4 or composted, 470,000 t of Colgate's packaging waste still end up in landfills, out of which 238,157 t (~51%) are plastics.

The company claims 49% of its content for overall packaging production was recyclable5;p4. This figure stood at 83% for its fiber-based packaging, implying recycling content used for plastic manufacturing most likely stands below 49%5;p4. Despite eliminating PVC from 99.7% of its packaging, the company has still increased absolute plastic use by 15.5% since 2017, making little progress on this matter5;p4. In fact, an independent study found C-P to be the tenth top plastic polluter of 2021, showing the company's initiatives are still to have a real impact9;p16.

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How to learn more about the impact that companies have on plastic pollution...

There are thousands of companies that all play a part in plastic pollution, these 10 might account for a large majority but they are not alone in their downfall.

What is important is that the largest players address the problem rather than relying on consumers to always take the lead, in reality, the options are limited for us: refill, avoid or recycle. While we will continue to do our part in helping the environment by avoiding single-use and recycling what we can, the time has come for more appropriate solutions to come into play from the top-down, with innovations in packaging and further development of real re-use/refill products at scale. 

As Break Free From Plastic also highlighted in their report, it is important to note that many of the companies listed here buy their plastic resin from fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell, making them part of the wider issue of climate change.
Break Free From Plastic assert 'the corporations behind the plastic pollution crisis are also contributing to the climate crisis,' looking at the plastic picture as a whole will certainly make you re-think that next purchase, let us hope that it is now enough for these companies to do the same.

One way you can take control of the problem is to rate the impact these companies are having on the Impaakt platform. By doing so you shape their impact score which is used by investors to decide where they allocate their capital, the more negative the impact of a company is, the less likely they are to be funded. 

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