Obedgiu Samuel: Coca-cola is Africa’s biggest polluter and something needs to change

Take a short walk around any urban or rural area in Africa, and you will quickly notice plastic waste littered all over. Another salient fact you will notice is that the collection of this plastic waste has been relegated to informal waste pickers and the poverty economy. Its children aged between the age of 8 to 16 do this informal waste collection in exchange for very little money for every kilogram.

Most of the plastic waste littered in many parts of the continent is generated by the Coca-cola franchise in different parts of the continent. Plastic waste in cities like Kampala clogs the surface water drain/sewer, or stormwater drain infrastructure designed to drain excess rain and groundwater from impervious surfaces such as paved streets. This has, on top of other numerous causes, made Kampala streets flood whenever it rains even slightly.

Coca-cola opened up recycling plants in many African countries in response to this plastic crisis. There are recycling plants in Tanzania and Uganda. In Uganda, Plastic Recycling Industries Ltd located in Kampala is a subsidiary of the Coca-cola franchise that, in theory, would help coca cola meet its recycling targets in Uganda.

However, this recycling plant in Kampala has been redundant for the past 3 years with little recycling activity. Coca-cola has failed to reach its recycling target in the past in Uganda because it couldn’t collect enough plastics to do economically viable recycling.

In the African market, the recycled content in the coca cola bottles has risen from 8.6% in 2018 to just 11.5% in 2020. At this rate, coca-cola is going to fall far short of its 50% target that it promised by the year 2030. If am to make some projections using current coca cola recycling statistics, by 2030, the company will only achieve 32% recycled content in its plastic bottles. And this is just theoretical. In 2008, coca cola promised the world that it will achieve 25% recycled content in its bottles by 2015. However, by the end of 2016, it had achieved less than 7% recycled content in its single-use plastic bottles. I wonder whether African environmental protection agencies like The National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) in Uganda are following up on these promises that are buried deep within thick coca-cola company reports to hold the company accountable

The biggest reason Coca-cola isn’t meeting its recycling targets in Africa is that there is under-investment in a collection of plastics to help them do economically viable recycling. The collection of single-use plastic “PET” polyethene terephthalate bottles has been relegated to the informal economy. This needs to change.

 Only 9% of all plastic that has ever been produced has been recycled. Recovery and recycling of plastic is more expensive than buying new plastic for companies for coca cola. There is no incentive for the company to even to recycling.

Let’s not forget that the reason Coca-Cola introduced single-use “PET” plastics in the 1970s, despite knowing the environmental cost, was to reduce the cost of dealing with glass refillable bottles. Refillable glass bottles meant Coca-Cola had to pay for the costs of production associated with getting the bottles back, washing them and refilling them gain. With the introduction of single-use packaging using plastic bottles, coca-cola now externalized all the management costs dealing with reusable glass bottles to poor African governments. In Africa, unfortunately, city councils also meet part of the externalized costs of collecting single-use plastic waste.

The waste challenge associated with plastics produced by companies like coca cola can be achieved through binding targets set by individual African states. African governments should set binding recycling targets that companies should meet once issued with licenses. Coca-cola has a “world without waste” target by 2030. But if Coca-Cola fails to meet the targets it sets, there are no sanctions.

Coca-Cola should stop relegating the collection of plastics to the informal economy where children that underpaid are used as labour. Coca-cola and its lobby groups should stop blaming the public for the waste disposal of a product they never introduced into the market. Instead, it should educate the public that when disposing of single-use plastics, they shouldn’t mix plastics with bio-degradable material, to ease its recycling targets

African governments in order to reduce plastic waste should provide tax incentives to beverage companies that have deposit-return models, recycling programs and refillable bottle quotas.