BRUSSELS — The United Nations Environment Programme says it has no plans to reassess its ties with some of the world’s biggest food and drink companies, after a recent study claimed those companies are responsible for significant plastic pollution in low- and middle-income countries.
“The Burning Question” — a report by Tearfund, a Christian NGO — found that the burning of plastic pollution from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever across China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria created climate emissions equivalent to 4.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018.
The NGO estimated the amount of plastic packaging used and sold by the companies in the six countries and then calculated how much of that would have been burned or dumped.
Devex speaks with the executive director at the United Nations Environment Programme about her priorities and the challenges around tackling climate change.
UNEP — the U.N. agency that works on issues such as climate change, environmental governance, and resource efficiency — partners with each of these companies. It works with all four on plastic pollution and with Unilever, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo on natural refrigerants. It has also worked with Nestlé on biodiversity and food waste.
Daniel Cooney, UNEP spokesperson, told Devex that “partnerships do not indicate endorsement.”
Instead, they are “one of the ways UNEP is able to work with various stakeholders to promote a full life-cycle and systems approach that would lead to a better overall environmental outcome. ... A healthy planet requires an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society,” he said.
“UNEP’s strength lies in its ability to work with partners from all sectors — from governments to civil society to the private sector — to support efforts towards sustainability.”— Daniel Cooney, spokesperson, UNEP
UNEP established its private sector unit in 2018 and says on its website that it is “engaging the private sector as never before to bring about lasting solutions--moving away from the notion of incremental to transformational change.” It adopted its first private sector engagement strategy in 2019.
Cooney said the agency is collaborating with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, in which businesses, governments, and other organizations aim to address plastic waste and pollution. Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever are among the signatories, which Cooney said: “are requested to make ambitious commitments on how they address plastic pollution and are held accountable to report yearly on how they have progressed.”
In response to the Tearfund report, all the companies emphasized their commitment to reducing plastic or making more of their packaging recyclable.
The private sector and foundations contributed $6.95 million to UNEP earmarked funds in 2018, a spokesperson told Devex.
“UNEP’s strength lies in its ability to work with partners from all sectors — from governments to civil society to the private sector — to support efforts towards sustainability,” Cooney said, when asked whether the Tearfund report would prompt a reevaluation of the agency’s relationship with the companies.
On plastic waste, Cooney said, “The private sector has the power to be proactive by voluntarily adapting business operating practices and promoting opportunities related to sustainable innovations, such as utilizing greener and more efficient technologies and practices.”
To mark Earth Day last week, Tearfund released a table ranking the four companies’ progress in reporting, reducing, and recycling the plastics they use and sell in low- and middle-income countries. Unilever performed best, well ahead of Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo.
Richard Gower, senior economist at Tearfund and co-author of “The Burning Question,” told Devex that when considering partnerships, the U.N. and government agencies should “press companies to pull hard on all levers to stop plastic pollution — reducing their plastic footprint and investing in schemes to collect and recycle their plastic.”
Gower said Tearfund was urging the public to email the CEOs of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, calling on them to do better. "International agencies should be applying similar pressure," Gower added.