The Burning Question on Earth Day 2020

April 22, 2020

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the theme this year is climate action. 

Earth Day is a global response to the environmental crisis and is marked on April 22 each year. The first Earth Day, in 1970, is now recognized as the planet’s largest civic event in history, and has proved hugely significant in catalysing the modern environmental movement. While Earth Day 2020 may be going digital this year as a result of Covid-19, EarthDay.org hopes to ‘flood the digital landscape’, joining voices together to call for meaningful action and change. 

To mark this year’s Earth Day, at Tearfund we are calling on the UK public to write to the CEOs of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo urging them to reduce dramatically the amount of single-use plastic they sell into developing countries. Go here to make your voice heard. 

This call comes as a result of Tearfund’s recent report:  The Burning Question which reveals for the first time the hidden plastic pollution footprint that four of the world’s biggest consumer brands are responsible for, driving up global greenhouse gas emissions.

The report has found that the emissions produced from the open burning of Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever’s plastic packaging on street corners, open dumps and in backyards in developing countries is a major contribution to the climate emergency. And they do this despite knowing that: 

  1. waste isn’t properly managed in these contexts; 
  2. their packaging therefore becomes pollution;
  3. such pollution scars landscapes, contributes to climate change and harms the health of the world’s poorest people.

Such actions – with such knowledge – are morally indefensible.

This report looks at the emissions from burning plastic in six countries (China, India, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria) and has estimated that, across just these six countries, CocaCola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are responsible for more than half a million tonnes of plastic pollution every year. This is enough to cover 83 football pitches every day (to a depth of 10cm). That’s more than one football pitch every 20 minutes. The plastic that is burnt creates emissions equivalent to 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 – the same as 2 million cars on UK roads a year. 

This is the first time such estimates have ever been made, and Tearfund is the first NGO to quantify the link between the burning and dumping of plastic in developing countries from multinationals and climate change. The findings of this report show that these companies must urgently switch to sustainable refillable and reusable packaging alternatives instead of single-use plastic packaging and sachets.

Tearfund launched the Rubbish Campaign in May 2019 to urge companies to act, and all but Coca-Cola have made new commitments related to Tearfund’s asks. However, so far only Unilever has committed to reduce its total plastic use. At present, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever make little or no mention of emissions from the disposal of their products or packaging in their climate change commitments. These companies have a moral responsibility for the disposal of the products they continue to pump into developing countries without proper waste management systems.

Since May 2019 Tearfund’s Rubbish Campaign has been challenging each company with a four-point plan to step up the pace to take responsibility for their plastic pollution. Tearfund has ranked how well the companies are doing in committing to this plan, asking, ‘Who’s the most rubbish?’. This league table reveals that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are barely off the starting blocks, with Unilever far ahead.

The steps taken to date by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are a far cry from the action necessary to tackle a crisis of this magnitude. This Earth Day it is more important than ever that these companies urgently reduce their reliance on single-use plastic and switch to refillable and reusable packaging alternatives. Today is also the AGM of Coca-Cola where important decisions about its future will be made. Today we can raise our voices to speak up and demand further action and responsibility from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s CEOs – for the sake of people living in poverty and the climate.


  • Go here to write to the CEOs of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo urging them to dramatically reduce the amount of single-use plastic they sell into developing countries. Go here to make your voice heard. 
  • Listen to this episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘Costing The Earth’, which focuses on our latest report, The Burning Question.
  • Read The Burning Question report, which highlights the link between plastic pollution and climate change. It includes the stories of Royda, Pascal, Miriam, and Agness from Tanzania and how they are affected. 
  • Share the report on social media. Use #rubbishcampaign and tag @CocaCola @PepsiCo @Nestle and @Unilever to let them know you want them to take action.
  • Pray for people who live without rubbish collection, for protection of their health and for provision for their families.

Thank you for caring and Happy Earth Day!

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  • Reply Mike Hill April 22, 2020 at 9:26 am

    I hate the stink of burning plastic. Thankfully it’s not in my backyard. Nor in the backyards of the CEO’s of Coca Cola and Pepsi. NIMBY’s they are. And sadly I suppose so am I.

  • Reply Wendy-May Jacobs April 22, 2020 at 10:29 am

    Thanks Ruth for your untiring commitment to drawing our attention to these things, in ALL seasons. Have emailed Coca Cola & Pepsi!

    • Reply Ruth July 28, 2020 at 8:15 pm

      Hi Wendy-May, I’m so sorry I only just saw this…. but thank you! Your email helped… both Coke and Pepsi have been responding to our asks, which is very encouraging.

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