An annual audit conducted by the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has revealed that Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and PepsiCo are the top contributors to packaging pollution in the UK.

The audit examined more than 30,700 polluting items collected by 4,000 citizen scientists over a 12-month period ending on 5 June 2023. These items were found along coastlines, canal paths, bridleways and city streets.

Coca-Cola remains UK’s biggest polluter for fourth consecutive year

Despite launching initiatives to reduce plastic pollution, including introducing attached caps across all its brands in May 2022, Coca-Cola remains the UK’s largest polluter for the fourth year in a row.

The audit found that the company was responsible for nearly a fifth (17%) of branded plastic pollution.

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McDonald’s overtakes PepsiCo as second-largest polluter

McDonald’s emerged as the second-largest polluter, accounting for 11% of the identified polluting items, surpassing PepsiCo, which came in third.

Collectively, these three companies were responsible for 37% of all branded pollution, showing a slight decrease of two percentage points from the previous year’s audit.

Surfers Against Sewage calls for responsibility and government action

Izzy Ross, a campaign manager at Surfers Against Sewage, expressed her disappointment but noted that the results were not surprising.

The charity is urging companies to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products by reducing packaging and adopting circular business models.

Surfers Against Sewage is calling on the government to introduce an “all-in” deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks of all sizes and materials.

The Government currently has plans to implement a DRS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, excluding glass, but the implementation has been delayed until 2025. A similar scheme in Scotland has also been postponed to 2025.

Ross emphasised that DRS schemes have been effective in other countries and could greatly help reduce pollution in the UK.

Responses from the companies

In response to the audit findings, representatives from Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and PepsiCo have commented on their sustainability efforts.

A spokesperson for Coca-Cola stated that the company is working with partners to encourage more recycling and supporting initiatives to combat litter.

They highlighted that all their bottles in the UK are recyclable, and their smaller packs are made from 100% recycled plastic, except for the cap and label.

McDonald’s spokesperson shared that over 90% of their packaging is sourced from recycled or renewable materials and is recyclable. The company actively encourages its customers to dispose of their packaging responsibly.

PepsiCo’s UK spokesperson acknowledged the litter problem on beaches and committed to reducing plastic usage throughout their portfolio.

They are working towards eliminating virgin fossil-based plastics in all their crisp and snack bags in Europe by 2030.