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Here’s Yet Another Reason To Break Your Diet Coke Habit

As Coca-Cola is named the world’s biggest plastic polluter for the second year running, Vogue looks at the environmental impact of your fizzy drink habit — and why cans and glass bottles may not necessarily be the more eco-friendly option.

You’re probably aware that your Diet Coke habit isn’t particularly healthy, not least because of all the artificial chemicals you’re consuming. But what about the impact it’s having on the environment? A recent study by Break Free From Plastic named Coca-Cola as the world’s largest plastic polluter for the second year running. The drinks company was responsible for six per cent of the branded plastic found in the global audit – more than the next three top global polluters, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Mondelēz, combined.

“This report highlights just how big the problem is and how much more work we need to do to make sure that we’re not polluting the ocean environment,” Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at environmental think tank Green Alliance, tells Vogue.

Coca-Cola has set a goal to recover 100 per cent of its cans and bottles by 2030. A spokesperson for the company states: “Any time our packaging ends up in our oceans — or anywhere that it doesn’t belong — is unacceptable to us. In partnership with others, we are working to address this critical global issue, both to help turn off the tap in terms of plastic waste entering our oceans and to help clean up the existing pollution.”

However, critics say companies such as Coca-Cola need to tackle the root cause of the issue — and fast. “Corporations need to reduce their plastic footprint and start investing in refill and reuse as the only way to address the plastic pollution crisis,” comments Shilpi Chhotray, senior communications manager at Break Free From Plastic.

The limitations of recycling

Although Coca-Cola says its plastic bottles are 100 per cent recyclable, this requires the bottles to be disposed of properly and doesn’t take into account the limitations of the recycling process. In fact, a 2017 study found that only nine per cent of the plastic ever made has been recycled. “We consider recycling to be a false solution [for] companies to be able to justify this addiction to single-use packaging,” says Chhotray.

“Being recyclable is one thing, [but] being recycled is an entirely different thing,” adds Peake. “There’s only so much control these companies exert once the packaging has left their chain of custody. For a long time, [there have been calls] for more government intervention and business contributions to make sure that material is actually recycled.”

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has set an aim of using 50 per cent of recycled material in all its primary packaging by 2030, while Pepsi has committed to using 25 per cent recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. But using recycled material does not in itself solve current limitations when it comes to recycling. “Using more recycled content is important where it needs to be used, but it’s not the wholesale solution we need to see,” Peake says.

What about the alternatives?

Aluminium cans and glass bottles are often considered to be more eco-friendly alternatives to plastic, but they too have a notable impact on the environment. Aluminium cans, which are lined with plastic, are in theory completely recyclable, but only have a recycling rate of 75 per cent in Europe. The production of virgin aluminium cans leads to up to three times more carbon emissions compared to plastic bottles, according to UK government figures, while mining the aluminium produces large amounts of toxic waste.

Although manufacturing glass leads to lower carbon emissions, transporting glass bottles produces more emissions than aluminium or plastic as they are much heavier. Meanwhile, bioplastics — which are made from plant-based materials and tend to be compostable — still need to be disposed of properly.

“There's so much awareness of the harm caused by plastic pollution, but that awareness isn’t yet extending to other single-use items,” Peake says. “It’s really important that people realise all materials have environmental consequences at various stages of their life cycle.”

Moving away from single-use packaging

Ultimately, we need to consume less single-use packaging overall and move towards reusable options. “It’s not a case of looking for a simple substitution [to plastic],” Peake comments. “It’s thinking more carefully about how we use resources and not thinking that any one substance is going to allow us to keep consuming infinitely in this throwaway culture.”

“We want corporations to show true leadership [and] make significant investments towards refillable and reusable alternatives,” adds Chhotray. Consumers can also do their bit to help. “[It’s] all about holding corporations accountable,” she continues. “Tag brands on social media, write to them and say, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

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