I’m known for my activism in HIV but in more recent years, like many of us, I have become increasingly aware the impact I have on the planet.
As I pass mounting rubbish on the sides of our roads and motorway embankments, one of the issues I’ve become acutely aware of is single use plastic.
‘We are producing over 380 million tons of plastic every year, and some reports indicate that up to 50% of that is for single-use purposes – utilized for just a few moments, but on the planet for at least several hundred years. It’s estimated that more than 10 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.’ PlasticOceans.org
Plastic is just one issue in a host of many that we all must begin to address – climate change, species extinction, global health emergencies – sometimes it can all feel a bit overwhelming.
But I’ve always believed that one person can make a difference.
In 2018 when I told the world my story of life with HIV, I couldn’t dream of the scale of impact it would have on countless other people.
A single snowflake has very little strength or power but put millions of them together and you’ve got an avalanche.
We all have a role to play in making change in this world.
That’s why when I was approached to appear in a Coca Cola campaign, I opened a dialogue with the brand.
And I’m pleased to say that dialogue led me on a journey I hadn’t quite expected.
Corporate Vs Consumer Responsibility
When thinking about issues such as single-use plastic, it is easy for us to fall into the trap of blaming someone else.
Consumers berate the manufacturers for not doing enough to address the issue, often whilst still consuming their products – I put my hands up: I’m guilty of doing this too.
And manufacturers say they’d do more if consumers didn’t demand their products delivered in the most convenient way.
The reality is of course much more complex than that.
But when I was offered a job talking about the indescribable feeling you get when drinking one of my favourite soft-drink treats, I realised how little I knew about what was actually being done.
So, I went on a mission to find out more… and I was impressed.
On their U.K. website Coca-Cola outlines their strategy and vision for a World Without Waste – an ambition to help collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can they sell worldwide by 2030.
Globally, making their packaging 100% recyclable is only part of Coca-Cola’s solution to the global plastic problem.
And here in the U.K. the work being done goes much further:
50% of plastic in Coca-Cola’s ‘core portfolio’ (their major selling brand names like Coca Cola, Coke Zero, Sprite, Fanta, Dr Pepper etc.) is now made from recycled material.
Since 2007, Coca-Cola have decreased the weight of packaging across their brands by 27 per cent, reducing the amount natural resources and energy they are using in the manufacturing process.
Sprite bottles have changed from green to clear allowing them to be more widely and easily recycled.
And Coca-Cola even acknowledge that encouraging people to recycle is no use if the recycling infrastructure and technology isn’t there, so have invested in state-of-the-art facilities including the Lincolnshire-based Clean Tech Plant, Europe’s largest plastic recycling facility.
And whilst some of these changes might seem small for a global brand, when scaled up, the impact can be huge.
For example, by removing plastic shrink wrapping on the 30 million packs of multipack cans sold in the U.K., an initiative being replicated across Western Europe, Coca-Cola has removed 4,000 tonnes of plastic from the supply chain.
Suddenly, I’m reminded of that snowflake again...
Over the past few years, many of us have become increasingly aware of our individual responsibility to address global issues such as single-use plastic and climate change.
I lead a fast-paced modern lifestyle like most of us do but where I’ve been able to make change, I have done.
I don’t own a car and use public transport or my bike where I can.
I stopped eating meat and fish, and then I removed many dairy products from my diet (my waistline has thanked me for this move).
I’m trying to avoid the temptations of fast fashion (not easy during long days of lockdown scrolling online).
I switched to plastic-free tea bags.
I switched to bar soap and started getting eco-friendly shampoo and cleaning products from a local refill shop.
And when I pick up an item in the supermarket that is wrapped in plastic, I always no ask the question: do I really NEED this product.
Am I a perfect carbon-neutral, plastic-free consumer? No.
Is what I’m doing making a difference? Remember that snowflake/avalanche analogy?...
Are We Doing Enough Quickly Enough?
The short answer to this for both consumers and manufacturers is probably: no.
Coca-Cola acknowledge the huge challenges ahead.
At the World Economic Forum Coca-Cola President and CEO James Quincey said: ‘With our drinks packaging among the waste that ends up littering our countryside, communities and beaches, we know we’ve got a real responsibility to address the world’s packaging problem.’
So, what have Coca-Cola acknowledged needs to be done here in the U.K.?
Well, currently, 70% of bottles in the UK are recycled, but it needs to move to 100% - this means companies like Coca-Cola must continue to invest in recycling technology and infrastructure.
And companies like Coca-Cola need to be at the forefront of developing a circular recycling economy – advocating for and implementing bottle deposit schemes, investing in recycling technology and working with Local Authorities and Government to provide better recycling services in our towns and cities.
Here in the U.K., Coca-Cola has a track record of funding partnerships with the NGO’s that are working tirelessly to address some of the biggest environmental challenges we face including projects with the WWF and WRAP.
And on a global scale, Coca-Cola is working with NGO’s and policy change-makers to such as The Ellen MacArthur Foundation on initiatives such as The New Plastic Economy – recognising that beach clean ups alone will not solve the plastic issue.
And at the consumer scale, what else could we all be doing?
Well, I’m not perfect, but I'm committed to continuing to make incremental changes to reduce the impact I have on the planet.
I still get in my boyfriend’s or grab a taxi when I’m running late, but we can all reduce emissions by car-pooling, taking public transport more and walking or cycling on short journeys.
I took a lot of international flights and travelled the world when I was younger so now, I’m rethinking my travelling options – more holidaying in the U.K. and using carbon offset schemes when travelling abroad.
It's essential that plastic waste is disposed of properly to stop it entering our waterways and the world’s oceans – joining the local litter pick initiative or starting one up is also a good way to give back and help remove plastic from our waterways and oceans.
When I'm at the checkout I'll continue to ask the question: ‘do I NEED this?’ and I'll continue to switch to brands that are committed to environmental sustainability - the more of us that do this, the more manufacturers will see that really does pay to commit to ‘going green’.
And we can all be putting more pressure on local and national Government in moving to a circular economy, via tariffs and schemes that support manufacturers to make the right decisions when it comes to the environment.
Tackling Complex Problems Is Everyone’s Responsibility
It’s clear we have a huge mountain to climb when it comes to the environmental impact of single-use plastic, but I remain hopeful - after all, humans are the most resourceful creatures on the planet!
But next time you reach for your favourite treat that’s wrapped in plastic, remember, tackling the issue of single-use plastic is everyone’s responsibility.
For more on Coca-Cola’s sustainability visit: www.coca-cola.co.uk/sustainability
20% of my fee for appearing in Coca-Cola’s social media ad campaign will be donated to The Marine Conservation Society. Find out how you can support their vital work here: www.mcsuk.org/how-you-can-help/