Coca-Cola scores highest on sustainable packaging, but most CPGs fall short, report says

Dive Brief:

  • Coca-Cola scored the highest for packaging sustainability among 50 consumer-facing companies in a new report from nonprofit As You Sow. The Corporate Plastic Pollution Scorecard 2021 graded companies on factors including their packaging design, the amount of recycled content in their packaging, and their financial support of recycling efforts.
  • The beverage giant earned a “B” from the nonprofit for its transparency around its packaging use, strong commitment to recycling and its support of producer responsibility initiatives. Other food and beverage companies were graded “C+” — including Keurig Dr Pepper and Nestlé — or worse, with eight earning an “F.” 
  • According to As You Sow’s Waste Program Coordinator Kelly McBee, the greatest areas of improvement came with companies’ pledges to make packaging 100% recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025, as well as commitments to improve packaging design.

Dive Insight:

As You Sow, founded 15 years ago, is used to holding CPGs’ feet to the fire to get them to adopt more sustainable practices. After the nonprofit filed a shareholder proposal this year that would compel Keurig Dr Pepper to report how much of its plastic waste escapes into the environment, the beverage company committed to cutting its use of virgin plastic by 25% by 2025. The group triggered similar commitments from PepsiCo and Mondelēz.

The year 2025 is a popular packaging goalpost for many food and beverage CPGs, many of whom are signatories on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global effort to adopt a circular economy for plastic by that time. Coca-Cola has pledged to make 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2025. And this past February, Coca-Cola rolled out bottles made from 100% recycled plastic across its portfolio.

Kraft Heinz also committed to making 100% of its packaging globally recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. However, the company received a “D” score in the As You Sow report for reasons such as limited packaging data transparency and low financial contributions to recycling efforts.

As You Sow’s McBee said that there is reason to push companies to follow through on their 2025 pledges and do more.

“I think there is danger there of the public seeing these announced goals and being like ‘Oh that’s great, they’re doing so well,’ but not having the context of how much more is needed,” McBee said.

The report details how companies’ plastic reduction goals have increased “ninefold” since 2019, when only two had such commitments. However, only 18 of the 50 companies tracked by As You Sow currently have pledges to reduce their plastic.

Some commitments, such as PepsiCo’s pledge to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025, only amount to “half-steps” since they perpetuate reliance on plastic, McBee said. The beverage and snack giant earned a “D+” grade from As You Sow for its efforts around sustainable plastic packaging.

McBee said that Unilever made one of the best commitments among the 50 CPGs that As You Sow ranked. The food giant, which scored a “C,” committed to cutting out a third of its plastic altogether by 2025. However, she disputes the company’s claim that reaching its goal would require a 100,000-ton decrease in plastic, saying that this number would only represent one-seventh of its plastic use.

McBee said the nonprofit is also fearful that companies will “kind of overcorrect” in response to consumer demand for sustainable packaging by embracing a type of compostable packaging that is not easy for consumers to process and would end up in landfills anyway. Most recently, PepsiCo announced a compostable bag for its Off The Eaten Path brand.

In the report, the nonprofit lays out recommendations for CPGs to make their packaging less plastic-reliant. These include phasing out flexible plastic, getting their packaging certified as recyclable by a third party, and donating more money to recycling efforts. As a way to show the public their dedication to sustainability, McBee said, the nonprofit encourages companies to donate a specific dollar amount per metric ton of plastic used, and to report those donations.

According to the report, “more than twice as many companies” compared to 2020 participated or financed research into recycling infrastructure, though that total makes up only 5% of the $17 billion in funding the group says is needed.