The Dirty Dozen: the top polluting brands in the UK in 2021

August 11, 2021 | Environment
The Dirty Dozen: Coca-Cola is the top polluter on UK beaches, oceans and rivers | Photo: SAS

Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) launched its flagship week of the Million Mile Clean from May 11-23, 2021.

As part of this event, volunteers took part in a national brand audit, an important citizen science program to drive corporate behavior change.

As the UK's biggest coordinated beach clean event, over 50,000 volunteers took part in 600 cleans, covering 350,000 miles in total over the Million Mile flagship week.

Of these volunteers, 3,917 walked and cleaned 11,139 miles of beaches, rivers, mountains and more, submitting 377 brand audit data sets.

A total of 26,983 items of packaging pollution were monitored as part of the brand audit.

The top 12 most polluting brands were responsible for 48 percent of all packaging pollution monitored during the audit.

There was little change in the most polluting brands of 2021 compared to 2019 results, with Coca-Cola, Walkers, McDonald's, Cadbury, Tesco, Lucozade, Costa Coffee, Mars Wrigley, and Haribo all making repeat appearances.

This year's Dirty Dozen companies were responsible for a massive 65 percent of all branded items collected.

Coca-Cola once again took the top spot, with Pepsi-Co holding on to second place.

UK beaches: the top 12 most polluting brands are responsible for 48 percent of branded pollution overall | Photo: SAS

The Pandemic Effect

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen some changes in the most polluting brands and the Dirty Dozen companies.

Brands such as Stella Artois and Budweiser have moved up into the top 12 polluting brands, with Anheuser-Busch InBev moving from eighth to third in the Dirty Dozen companies ranking.

This is likely to be due to the closure of pubs, bars, and restaurants, increasing personal alcohol consumption in public recreational settings during lockdowns.

Looking at the types of items found as part of the brand audit, it is estimated that almost 30 percent of all material monitored through the brand audit would be captured by an all-in Deposit Return Scheme (DRS).

For the Dirty Dozen companies, 52 percent of items would be captured through an all-in DRS design.

Over 80 percent of Coca-Cola's packaging, the top polluter, is estimated to be captured through this scheme.

63 percent of all items monitored as part of the brand audit were unbranded.

Cigarette butts were by far the biggest contributor at 25 percent of the unbranded items.

Although receiving considerable attention over the last 18 months, PPE only accounted for 2.5 percent of all pollution monitored through the audit.

Whilst clearly an emerging threat, it is important that this should not distract from the significant amount of pollution caused by brands and their parent companies.

This year's brand audit shows that little has changed in terms of those responsible for the pollution on beaches, rivers, streets, and the countryside.

Despite the corporate promises and commitments made, the plastic production and pollution tap is still not being turned off.

We need companies, and their brands, to stop peddling false solutions and instead focus on ways to meaningfully reduce packaging production and pollution and adopt models of reuse and refill.

And we need to see governments introduce policies that are proven to prevent pollution from reaching the ocean.

We need a Deposit Return Scheme that captures all sizes of containers of as wide a range of materials as possible, not one limited to only on-the-go containers.

We need to stop the dither and delay and get on with introducing an all-in DRS now.

The Dirty Dozen | Top Polluting Brands in the UK

1. Coca-Cola
2. PepsiCo
3. AB InBev
4. McDonald's
5. Mondelez
6. Heineken
7. Tesco
8. Carlsberg Group
9. Suntory
10. Haribo
11. Mars
12. Aldi


Words by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS)

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