Nestlé, Tim Hortons named Canada's top plastic polluters again

For the second year in a row, Nestlé and Tim Hortons were the top companies behind branded plastic bottles, coffee cups and lids and other plastic waste collected in shoreline cleanups across the country, Greenpeace Canada reported Tuesday.

Recyclable, compostable products common in litter collected in shoreline cleanups

This is part of a Greenpeace Canada art installation of an albatross feeding her baby branded plastic trash, standing in a nest on a beach covered with plastic pollution. It features top plastic polluters identified through brand audits from shoreline cleanups in Canada. This years top five were Nestlé, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, McDonalds and Coca-Cola. (Vanessa Garrison / Greenpeace)

For the second year in a row, Nestlé and Tim Hortons were the top companies behind branded plastic bottles, coffee cups, and lids and other plastic waste collected in shoreline cleanups across the country, Greenpeace Canada reported Tuesday.

Starbucks, McDonald's and the Coca-Cola Company rounded out the top five of the environmental advocacy group's list of plastic polluters.

"Year to year the general order can shift a bit, but overall it's those top usual suspects that we will keep seeing pop up," said Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada's oceans and plastics campaign.

"We know that all of the top five companies to date haven't made significant efforts to reduce [plastic] production. Their products are going to be in the environment until that happens."

King had noted previously that in many cases, the plastic waste is likely disposed of properly by consumers, but ends up in the environment anyway, sometimes due to wind or storms.

These are the top 10 plastic items found during shoreline cleanups. (Greenpeace)

The companies were named from 1,426 pieces of identifiably branded plastic out of 13,822 pieces of plastic waste collected and audited by 400 volunteers during shoreline cleanups between April and Sept. 21. The cleanups were organized by community groups participating in the global Break Free from Plastic movement in Halifax; Covehead, P.E.I.; Fredericton; Montreal; Toronto; Grimsby, Ont.; Broken Group Islands, B.C.; Vancouver and Victoria.

King said the primary goal of the brand audit was to "hold companies accountable for the plastic pollution problem that they continue to create."

But it's also intended to show Canadian governments how big a problem single-use plastics continue to be, as well as which items are problematic.

The top plastic items found this year were, in order:

  • Cigarette butts (not included in last year's audit)
  • Bottles and caps
  • Food wrappers
  • Cups and lids
  • Straws and stir sticks
  • Tampon applicators
  • Foam pieces
  • Bags
  • Cutlery
  • Food packaging

Food wrappers were abundant in Vancouver, which accounted for half the wrappers collected across Canada. Halifax was the top site for tampon applicators, where 235 were collected.

Brand reaction

This Tim Hortons cup was one of 1,426 items with identifiable branding found during the cleanups. Tim Hortons says it has offered a discount for decades to encourage customers to bring reusable mugs, and has begun selling such mugs for $1.99. (Greenpeace)

In response to the Greenpeace report, all brands told CBC News they were working to making their packaging more sustainable and reduce the amount that ends up in the environment:

  • Nestlé said it is speeding up efforts to eliminate unnecessary plastics and ensure all its packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2025. It added that in Canada, the company is "taking an active role in developing a well-functioning collection, sorting and recycling system so that all of our packaging gets recycled."
  • Tim Hortons said that since 1978, it has offered a discount, currently 10 cents, to encourage consumers to bring a reusable mug, and recently started marketing the practice and offering reusable cups for $1.99. It said it is moving to more recyclable and compostable items, including strawless lids, wooden stir sticks and compostable cutlery, and incorporating post-consumer recycled content into its cups and paper bags.
  • Starbucks said it "continues to be dedicated to the research and development of leading programs to eliminate waste and increase recycling"​ such as the NextGen Cup Challenge. It will be piloting a prototype of a greener cup in Vancouver later this year. The company has introduced recyclable strawless lids and said it will eliminate plastic straws globally by 2020.
  • McDonald's said that in January 2018, it committed to sourcing 100 per cent of guest packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025, and to recycle guest packaging in all restaurants.
  • Coca-Cola said it plans to collect a bottle for every one it sells by 2030, and is actively working with partners to educate consumers to recycle their drink packaging properly.

'Baby steps'

King called the companies' recent moves to more sustainable packaging "baby steps" that aren't enough, given the scale of the plastic pollution problem.

These are some of the plastic bottles collected during shoreline cleanups in 2019. Despite the fact that they are widely recyclable, they were one of the most common items found. (Greenpeace)

While many companies have promised to make their packaging more recyclable, King noted that plastic bottles are "always a top polluter," even at remote sites like the Broken Group Islands, were more than 1,000 were collected.

"What's interesting about that is they're also theoretically one of the most recyclable," King added. "Just because a plastic is theoretically recyclable doesn't mean it's being collected and being recycled."

This year's audit also noted that many compostable materials, including paper straws, compostable dog waste bags, paper cups, compostable takeout containers and bioplastic and wooden cutlery were found, most of them intact with the exception of some paper products that were starting to break apart. King noted that many of the other items are designed to break down only in industrial composting facilities, not in the environment.

"In the short term, at least, they're still polluting," she said. "Again, it reinforces this need to move away from disposables altogether."

Cigarette butts were the top item found during the shoreline cleanups. (Greenpeace)

Will a plastic ban help?

So far, it's not clear whether plastic bans that are starting to come into force or companies voluntarily phasing out items like plastic straws have helped, King said, noting that many of those plastic items will persist in the environment for years.

The federal government has proposed a ban on single-use plastics, but hasn't said what items it will cover or when it will go into effect.

King thinks that will help, but says the ban needs to be comprehensive, covering all the items that are regularly found in the environment with reusable alternatives.

She hopes that will force companies to reduce their production of single-use plastic. 

"It's not fair that the onus is totally on people not only to dispose of things properly … but then literally clean up the mess that's being made by large plastic polluters."