Just twelve companies make up two-thirds of the brands found strewn across the UK’s beaches, according to new research into packaging and plastic pollution.
Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Tesco were among those responsible for 65 per cent of packaging picked up across the country, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) said, while experts warned food and drink giants must cut their packaging output “before it is too late”.
“Plastic packaging is polluting the ocean, impacting marine species and destroying habitats,” said Brendan Godley, conservation scientist at the University of Exeter.
The audit showed the types of plastic pollution which are “escaping into the marine environment” and highlighted the brands responsible, he added.
“I believe that this kind of work is critically important in order to urge companies to urgently reduce their packaging pollution before it is too late.”
Haribo, Mars, Aldi, Suntory, Mondelez International, Heineken, Carlsberg Group and Anheuser-Busch InBev – parent company for Stella Artois and Busweiser – made up the rest of the so-called “dirty dozen”.
The Covid-19 crisis affected the types of products contributing most to pollution, the SAS report suggested, after recording an increase in beer cans which researchers said was likely down to the closure of pubs and restaurants during lockdowns. Plastic and glass bottles plus cigarette butts accounted for nearly half (48 per cent) of unbranded pollution across the UK’s environment.
But the surge in PPE such as masks used as a result of the pandemic did not add significantly to the national litter problem, the researchers found, accounting for just 2.5 per cent of unbranded plastic pollution.
SAS unveiled a three-metre art installation at Watergate Bay in Cornwall during the Boardmasters festival, depicting a supersized industrial pipe spewing plastic pollution onto the beach and calling on companies to ”turn off the tap”.
The litter recorded in the audit was collected by nearly 4,000 volunteers over a distance of 11,139 miles, which SAS said made it the UK’s biggest ever coordinated litter pick. They recorded nearly 10,000 branded pieces of pollution linked to 328 companies in total.
The audit revealed the “shocking volume of packaging and plastic pollution coming directly from big companies and some of their best-known brands,” said Hugo Tagholm, chief executive for SAS.
“Serial offenders including Coca-Cola – which tops the leader board year on year as the worst offender – are still not taking responsibility.
“We cannot allow polluting industries to use the current health crisis to deflect from their own damaging behaviours and put the blame on the individual.”
The environmental campaigners want big companies to reduce their packaging and switch to offering refills in multi-use containers, as well as urging the government to introduce a deposit return scheme for all drinks containers.
This would mean consumers paid an up-front deposit on a product which they would get back when they returned the container. More than half of pollution from the top twelve polluting companies could be captured this way, SAS said.
Ministers previously said there were plans for such a scheme but they were pushed back to 2024 as a result of the pandemic. The government has reportedly since considered narrowing the scope of the scheme to only small containers sold in multipacks.
“Like everyone, we care about reducing packaging waste and we don’t want to see any of our packaging end up where it shouldn’t,” a spokesperson for Coca-Cola said. “All of our packaging is 100 per cent recyclable and our aim is to get more of it back so that it can be recycled and turned into new packaging again.
“It’s disappointing to see any packaging being littered and that’s why we support the introduction of a well-designed deposit return scheme, which would encourage people to recycle rather than litter or throw away.
“In Great Britain, we’re continuing to work with numerous organisations to encourage more recycling on-the-go and we’re actively supporting a number of initiatives with the aim of making litter something of the past.”