Why we have a battle with drink corporations

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Clean Up Kenya recently launched a global #BanTheBottleCampaign to pressure the beverage and plastic industry to come up with earth-friendly packaging for the products they produce. Speaking at the launch, I observed, “There will be no more concessions for the plastic and beverage industry. They have had more than enough time to come up with earth-friendly alternatives. It’s time to ban the bottle.”

The launch of this campaign comes on the backdrop of the largely successful signature ban of plastic carry bags in Kenya which was implemented in August 2017. Since then, many other countries around the world have also followed suit. President Uhuru Kenyatta has also issued a directive to have a ban on all single-use plastic in our protected areas, beaches and game parks starting July 2020.

Ban-the-bottle-campaign Clean Up Kenya
Top models from Kenyan universities participated in the #BanTheBottleCampaign launch in Nairobi

Over the last few years, the world has exceedingly been troubled by the growing problem of plastic waste. It is estimated that by 2030, there will be more plastics in our oceans than fish. The amounts that are also found on land are also mind-blowing with recycling schemes, incineration schemes and other circular economy initiatives failing to keep up with production. That’s why in recent years there has been a sustained global drive on the banning of most single-use plastic materials.

Unfortunately, many bans across the world have avoided putting the polyethene terephthalate (PET) bottle to the list of targeted plastics. Many of these bottles are used to pack fizzy drinks and water. The beverage industry introduced these bottles to the world in the late seventies and since then trillions of them have been produced, with about only 3 percent having been recycled over time. Coca-cola, for example, produces 3 million tones of these bottles annually. This they do in open disregard of the available alternative of returnable glass bottles which they continue to use with some of their products while they continue to make idle commitments that are never implemented.

Is bottled water a global scam?

A model joins the #BanTheBottleCampaign

One sector where we now know uses PET bottles unnecessarily is bottled water. Just like straws, bottled water is really not a necessity. Bottled water is simply a global scam. Approximately 5 billion people have access to safe clean drinking water. In some countries such as the United States of America for example, 99% of the country has access to clean tap water. Figures from other countries vary depending on the development of the state. In most cities of the world, there exists an acceptable infrastructure to capture, treat and supply its population with safe utility water. This is however not to state problems does not exist. They do, and governments and municipalities across the world continue to find solutions to these problems including asking people to use available home purification systems.

To imagine then, that the tap water we use to cook with, drink, shower and wash cloth with in our homes is unsafe is a simplistic assessment. There would simply be a global health crisis if the water in these cities and towns were to be found totally unsafe for human consumption. Water is life the saying goes, and governments know this. The same water we drink in our homes, we can simply carry in refillable bottles and drink while away from home or even better, we can have access to free clean drinking water wherever we go. It costs about 1 US Dollar to buy a litre of bottled water in most places and it beats me to think that you need around 3 US Dollars to buy the recommended daily water intake for a human as recommended by the World Health Organisation! This is simply a scam!

The narrative then that consumer companies have relied on to state that tap water is unsafe and unhealthy compared to bottled water is simply pure fantasy! It is an unfounded narrative that has been contrived by the drink corporations to manufacture demand for bottled water. In any case, tests done in many cities around the world have not found any superior ingredients in bottled water compared to tap water. In some studies, tap water has been found to be actually more superior with microplastics having been found in bottled water. Even in countries where tap water is totally safe to drink, these corporations continue to manufacture demand to make billions of dollars while not doing much to contribute to the water availability and environmental agenda.

Secondly, the biggest problem with PET bottles is how the bottles are disposed and managed after use, given that bottled water and other fizzy drinks are very first moving consumer commodities. Consumer behaviour has seen rampant littering and illegal dumping with these bottles being found on streets, highways and in gutters and when it rains, they are conveyed into our water bodies. A good fraction of them ends up in landfills where they will sit for hundreds of years.

Recycling does not seem to provide a solution to this problem. According to Forbes, the world was producing 1 million PET bottles per minute in 2017, with only about 10 per cent ever getting recycled globally. This is largely due to a lack of adequate recycling infrastructure in most developing and underdeveloped world. How governments have allowed these corporations to conduct business in these countries without first setting up such an infrastructure is still a mystery.

This means tremendous strain has been put on the resources of governments and communities to manage this waste stream. The Kenyan government, for example, is currently spending approximately USD 500 million annually to manage waste with about 30% of this waste being PET bottles and other single-use plastic. When you add this to what individual homesteads spend to keep this waste out of communities, this could simply run into billions of dollars. A bill that should be paid for by the drink corporations.

Single-use glass bottles also a problem

Single-use glass bottle is also becoming another problem. These are often used to package wines, spirits and premium beers. While Kenya enjoys a vibrant beer industry which has a stable system of using returnable glass bottles, beers and other alcoholic beverages that are imported come in single-use glass bottles. These bottles end up in our dumpsites. The Heineken brand continues to be the biggest menace. Yet again the government has done little to require these brands to set up a recycling and recovery infrastructure before the brands are allowed into the country.

Clean Up Kenya Young Ambassador representing Vihiga County at the launch of the #BanTheBottleCampaign

This is why we have started the #BanTheBottleCampaign. To put pressure on the industry to come up with more sustainable management of the packaging they use and for governments to do more. Already Uganda has joined us on this journey with environmentalists in other countries set to join in the coming weeks.

We are very encouraged with the words of President Uhuru Kenyatta in Vancouver, Canada on this year’s World Environment Day:

“Kenya is a trailblazing nation when it comes to environment protection and conservation. Two years ago we banned the use, manufacture and sale of environmentally harmful plastics, polythene bags and packaging materials. Building on this, today, I’m also announcing another ban of single-use plastics, including plastic bottles, straws, in all our protected areas, including national parks, beaches, forests and conservation areas effective 5th of June next year. A sustainable environment is a guarantee to a healthy, better and productive society.”