For three consecutive years, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé have been called out as the world’s top plastic polluters, and on top of that, they have also been accused of making zero progress on turning this fact around, regardless of the promises that the major brands have made in the past. A Coca-Cola spokesperson announced at this year’s Break Free From Plastic’s (BFFP) brand audit that “Globally, we have a commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, so that none of it ends up as litter or in the oceans, and the plastic can be recycled into new bottles.” What exactly are these giant corporations doing to reverse the damage they have already done, and just how much damage are we all helping them create?
Every year there is a press conference that involves counting and documenting brands from all over the world on plastic waste. For 2020, Coca-Cola, rather unsurprisingly, came out as the world’s number one plastic polluter after its beverage bottles were the most frequently found disregarded in our environment within 51 of the 55 nations that are surveyed. This is a jump up the ladder from last year’s result where they took the 37th place. In fact this year, Coca-Cola was found to be worse than both the second and third worst plastic polluters, PepsiCo and Nestlé, combined. The three together however are responsible for half a million tonnes of plastic pollution in just six developing countries each year, according to a survey by NGO Tearfund.
BFFP’s global campaign coordinator Emma Priestland stated that “The world’s top polluting corporations claim to be working hard to solve plastic pollution, but instead they are continuing to pump out harmful single-use plastic packaging.” Priestland also said that the only way to halt this global tide of plastic littering was to stop production by phasing out single use plastics completely and implement reuse systems instead. She focused on a point that “Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé should be leading the way in finding real solutions to reinvent how they deliver their products,” as such enormous corporations are the ones whose changes can have crucial impacts.
The latest report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has made it sadly clear that these corporations have made zero progress in addressing the plastic pollution crisis. If business continues at the current rate of escalation for these three brands, plastic production and all the harm it induces could double by 2030 and triple by 2050.
According to a 2017 study, up to 91 per cent of all the plastic waste ever generated has not been recycled, meaning that it ends up being incinerated in landfill or being found contaminating the natural environment. Plastic pollution isn’t just down to the three corporations named above, it also points towards things such as cigarette butts and sachets (of ketchup or coffee and shampoo). The data collected from BFFP’s report reveals that other companies that make up the top ten plastic polluters in the world are Unilever, Mondelēz International, Mars, P&G, Philip Morris International, Colgate-Palmolive and Perfetti Van Melle.
The BFFP report has said that the COVID-19 pandemic has without doubt made an impact on the plastics system in 2020. However, this year’s report is based primarily on 2019 data, which means that the effects of the pandemic are not yet reflected in the numbers contained thus far. When it comes to next year, the data is expected to be evident, in a shocking way, due to the fact that single use plastic, in take away items like coffee cups or personal protective equipment, has increased as a safety measure towards combating the virus.
That being said, in a joint statement published in the Financial Times in June 2020, over 50 policy makers, CEOs and other influential individuals highlighted ‘circular economy’ as a solution to build resilience into the global economy in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Global commitment progress reports that “Others have even raised their ambition level in the last few months, with companies such as L’Oréal and Colgate-Palmolive Company setting new, more ambitious targets to create a circular economy for plastics over the past months.”
Overall, the plastic pollution reports are dire and disheartening, but by getting this information out into the general public and raising awareness to our own responsibility as consumers is one step in the right direction. A reinvention of how corporations deliver their products is necessary before the ever growing crisis becomes unmanageable. The ball is in your court Coca-Cola.
Every year 12.7 million tonnes of plastic seeps its way into the oceans, with some of it even getting trapped in the Arctic ice, lodged in the bellies of marine life and caught around turtle’s necks. As a result, many fashion brands are taking this as an opportunity to incorporate regenerated yarns into their collections. But is this a sustainable future for fashion and our planet?
Technology and fashion have merged to produce Bionic and Econyl yarns, which are being made from discarded plastic in the oceans. From water bottles to takeaway containers and even old fishing nets, it seems fashion has repurposed plastic firmly on its agenda. This plastic is being recycled into usable yarns for the creation of garments like trainers, sportswear, lingerie and even dresses.
These yarns are increasingly being used by local and global brands to create all types of textile products. Not only is this integration removing plastic from the oceans and reusing it, it’s also helping to improve local communities. Two years ago twelve tonnes of abandoned fishing nets were collected from the Basque region and turned into Econyl yarn; this is still being utilised today, forming part of clothing brand Ternua’s autumn winter 2018 collection.
But there are problems with repurposing plastic into garments. When any synthetic clothing is washed, tiny plastic fibres can be released from the fabrics and these microplastics can make their way into water systems. According to Mark Anthony Browne in Environmental Science & Technology, one single synthetic garment can produce nearly 2,000 microfibers per wash. As of July 2018, these microplastics—which are comparable to cosmetic beads—are going to be banned from sale in the U.K. because of the threat they pose to marine life as they find their way into food chains and cause serious harm to aquatic life. At the same time, the microscopic dimensions of these plastics means they cannot always be filtered by sewage systems, proving a real concern to the environment.
At the moment, fashion made from synthetic material is inevitable, it is and will be used to make throwaway fashion for the foreseeable future. The most common synthetic textile is polyethylene terephthalate (polyester), a plastic produced from crude oil and also used to create many other household items, from hosepipes to ketchup bottles. It is predicted that more than 98 percent of fiber production in the future will be synthetics, and of this, 95 percent will be polyester. Sure, repurposing old plastic is better than producing more. Yet a more long term solution would be to encourage the fashion industry to further push towards making garments from sustainable sources that will not prolong harmful effects on the environment.
Two fashion students in Delaware have created biodegradable shoes using a part of a mushroom called the mycelium, chicken feathers and textile waste. It is local innovation like this that will lead the fashion industry. Jillian Silverman, co-maker of these shoes said to Screen Shot, “Mycelium has been used in hard structures like packaging and insulation, and our proximity to the mushroom farms in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, provided us with a great local material input.”
Aside from fabrics, there are other factors to making fashion entirely sustainable, especially for larger brands. Silverman continued, “The textile industry needs more sustainable production methods, materials, and end of life considerations; mycelium shoe sole can be produced with minimal energy, is nontoxic and safe to work with and wear, and can safely break down when it is no longer useful. Plenty of other bio-based materials offer similar benefits, and this sort of innovation is crucial to improving the apparel and footwear industries.”
The concept of producing clothing from yarns made from regenerated ocean plastic, in theory is a revolutionary idea, but the repercussions that result from washing synthetic fabrics does not actually improve the environmental problem of microplastics. Plastic conscious clothing is appealing to customers who are becoming more aware of environmental impacts but this cannot be seen as the final goal of the sustainable fashion trend. If synthetic clothing is an essential part of the fashion industry (and it shouldn’t be), then using old plastic that is polluting the sea is certainly better than creating more. Yet ideally fashion would look to use only sustainable and biodegradable fabrics to create garments like Silverman’s project and only when this happen—and other impacts like waste reduction, manufacturing practises and human impacts are improved—can fashion be praised for a lesser impact on the environment.