water is a privilege, let’s have a Coke instead // the environmental impact of soft drinks

The environmental impact of soda

The global soft drink industry is worth 0.85 trillion dollars in 2023, and the market is expected to grow around 4% in the coming years. The most revenue from soft drinks is generated in the US, sales which are estimated to total 328 billion dollars this year – where 1 in 5 consumes soda every day. It is estimated that the average volume of soft drinks consumed per person in 2023 is 42.9 litres, according to Statista, 2023.

The biggest soft drink companies are:

Pepsi Co

Also owns: AMP Energy, Aquafina, Cap’n Crunch, Cheetos, Cracker Jack, Crunchy, Doritos, Frito-Lay, Fritos, G2, Gatorade, Kas, Lay’s, Life, Lifewater, Manzanita Sol, Marias Gamesa, Mirinda, Miss Vickie’s, Mountain Dew, Mug, Munchies, Naked, Near East, O.N.E., Pasta Roni, Pepsi, Pioneer Foods, Propel, Quaker, Rice-A-Roni, Rold Gold, Ruffles, Santitas, 7UP, Sierra Mist, Snack a Jacks, SoBe, Sonric’s, Stacy’s, Sting, SunChips, Tostitos, Tropicana, Walkers

The Coca-Cola Company

Also owns: AdeS soy-based beverages, AHA sparkling waters, Aquarius, Ayataka green tea, Chivita, Ciel water, Costa Coffee, Dasani waters, Del Valle juices and nectars, Fairlife, Fanta, Fresca and Fresca Mixed Coctails, Fuze Tea, Georgia coffee, Gold Peak teas and coffees, Honest Kids, ILOHAS, innocent smoothies and juices, Jack Daniel’s and Coca-Cola, Minute Maid juices, Peace Tea, Powerade sports drinks, Simply juices and Simply Spiked adult beverages, Schweppes, smartwater, Sprite, Topo Chico waters and hard seltzers, vitaminwater

Keurig Dr. Pepper

Also owns: 7UP, Bai Brands LLC, A&W Root Beer, A&W Cream Soda, Cactus Cooler, Canada Dry, Canfield’s, Clamato, Crush, Dejà Blue, Diet Rite, Dr Pepper, Hawaiian Punch, Hires Root Beer, IBC Root Beer, Margaritaville, Mott’s, Mr & Mrs T, Nantucket Nectars, Nehi, Peñafiel, RC Cola, ReaLemon, Rose’s, Schweppes, Snapple, Squirt, Stewart’s Fountain Classics, Sun Drop, Sunkist, Venom, Vernors, Wink, Yoo-hoo

Red Bull GbmH

Monster Energy Company

Also owns: Relentless, Full Throttle, NOS, Mother, Burn, Predator, Reign, Live+, True North

The impact of carbonated drinks is divided between packaging, ingredients, refrigeration and transport, but some of these factors and definitely heavier than others. According to a study from 2012, packaging, that is bottles and cans mainly, is responsible for 59-77% of the impact of the product. Ingredients account for 7-14%, we also have a 5-10% impact that comes from manufacturing, 7% comes from transportation, and then there is an additional potential impact from refrigeration which can drive up the emissions by 33% (Amienyo, Gujba, & Stichnothe, 2012).

Packaging

The emissions related to packaging differ a lot depending on which packaging is used. Glass comes with the highest manufacturing impact because it is heavy, it requires really high temperatures and glass is made from minerals which have to be excavated from a natural environment. Overall, using glass as a single-use material is a really bad idea. Sure, the more times glass is recycled the better it becomes, I have a whole impact video about glass specifically, so check that out of you’re curious about the variations of glass impact. However, the lowest emissions for packaging come from PET plastic bottles. Because when using plastic, only a tiny bit of material is used, it is light in weight, and blown up to fit the bottle mould – so the production impact is much lower.

The GWP (global warming potential) of soft drinks could be reduced by 32-48% if 40-60% of PET bottles were recycled. Currently, 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, so there is a long way to go. Additionally, reusing glass between one and five times could reduce the GWP by up to 2.5 times (Amienyo, Gujba, & Stichnothe, 2012).

What about cans? Aluminium cans can be recycled indefinitely, just like glass, without degrading in quality, but in contrast to glass it is much lighter, more flexible, and as such lowers damage risk and transports emissions. The recycling rate of aluminium is also okay, there is always for improvement, but according to the Aluminium Association, nearly 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use. While the impact of initially created aluminium is large, there is also an impact analysis about that on my channel, but recycling it only uses 8% of the initial manufacturing impact.

Also check out: IS ALUMINIUM SUSTAINABLE? // what’s better cans or bottles?

Now, I have thoughts. Firstly, there is no need to glorify glass packaging, it is impactful, and doesn’t make a product more sustainable, especially so when there is no infrastructure to reuse and recycle it. Now, systems do exist that make glass more sustainable. In the Danish return system glass bottles from soft drinks and beer are washed and reused at least 30 times before they are even re-melted once (Samvirke, 2015), which drastically lowers the impact. Glass can also be recycled over and over again without degrading in quality, whereas you have to add new plastic to recycled plastic to avoid it going brittle. There are upsides to using plastic though, it is lighter, which makes transportation a lot less impactful, and you risk fewer leaks and breaks of the packaging. However, when companies are banging on about plastic, they should also contribute to return, and recycling systems so consumers have the proper infrastructure to actually dispose of the materials in a way where they won’t end up in landfill. And far too many companies are going on about how important it is for consumers to recycle plastic, while not actually contributing to widespread recycling systems.  As such, plastic comes with issues from ocean pollution, microplastic, and being a fossil material in and of itself.

If you’re confused about which option to choose that’s fair, this chart helps to put things into perspective, and it also shows how vastly different the production impacts can be on these materials.

Ingredients

The main impact here is sugar. Ingredients only account for less than 20%, but that surely does not mean that it is an impact that shouldn’t be improved and noticed. The agricultural processes of growing sugar require pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Sugar cane also requires loads of water and can cause erosion and water contamination. Producing 1 litre of soft drink can requires 340-620 litres of water, which isn’t the most terrible impact. The water usage for cow’s milk is more than twice as high. However, when it comes to the production of sugar cane, there is a social impact we should have in mind as well. A large quantity of sugar is imported from countries with very low wages, and with an increased risk of forced child labour, the very same issues that were also covered in the chocolate analysis. Brazil, India, China, Thailand and Pakistan are the top five global sugar producers. Now this has been an issue for decades and is also the topic of Belinda Coote’s book The Hunger Crop. Lastly, a Fairtrade-certified sugar farm in Belize was found using child labour during school hours, 14% of the UK’s raw sugar was imported from Belize during that time (Cole, The Conversation, 2018). And, as we have also discussed, certification can be a great place to start, but large corporations are still exploiting areas affected by poverty without building those communities up, but rather keeping them in a state of constant poverty.

Also check out: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CHOCOLATE // environmental and social impact analysis

So is diet soda more sustainable?

Now that we have established that sugar is the primary impactful ingredient in soft drinks that begs the question: is diet soda then more sustainable? The three most common artificial sweeteners are aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame K, which are produced in industrial laboratories. Aspartame is probably the most known artificial sweetener, and it is sugar that has been fermented by bacteria. And a fun fact, these sweeteners are actually 600 times sweeter than sugar but contain 0 calories.

These “Calorie-free” ingredients are a result of the fact that the body cannot absorb and digest these compounds, so they just go straight through our system and ends up at wastewater treatment plants, and later on in our global water systems aka the environment. It should be noted that this issue is still vastly understudied, so hard data regarding the development of artificial sweeteners in nature is still a relatively new topic in science. While the fields lack data, artificial sweetener residue has been detected in groundwater in Europe, and changes in algae and fish have also been detected, so some scientists are predicting that this will become a bigger issue in the future (Kattel, 2017). There is also data that suggests that artificial sweeteners can break down into toxic compounds when exposed to UV lighting, so with unpredictable bioaccumulation, it is hard to what will happen, but it most likely won’t be beneficial. Overall it seems that the production impact of diet options is lower than that of sugar. But as several studies also point out, the supply chains for different types of sweeteners, both natural and artificial are so vastly different that they are basically impossible to compare, as their only shared quality is flavour. So is diet soda more sustainable – in terms of manufacturing and social impact, probably, but in terms of lasting effects on the environment, they most likely aren’t.

A study that showed the lower carbon footprint in diet soda came from the Carbon Trust, on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company, but it failed to mention the post-production impacts.

Greenwashing

Now, I have actually talked about the greenwashing of both Coca-Cola Company and Pepsi Co several times on this channel, in my greenwashing series they are both returning characters. Everything from claims about recyclable materials to plans on biodegradable bottles, oh and does anyone remember Coca-Cola Life? The Coca-Cola Company produced 2,900.000 metric tons of plastic in 2020, Pepsi Co produced 2,300,000, and this has made these companies the worst plastic polluters on the planet 5 years in a row (McCarthy, Forbes, 2020). I really recommend checking out the report Break Free from Plastic which gathers information from more than 200.000 volunteers to map out the extent of plastic pollution.  One thing is the initial manufacturing impact, where plastic falls relatively light, another thing is what happens to the materials after use. There are loads of reasons why we should demand more from the companies that produce this plastic packaging, one thing that we didn’t ask for, but that we got anyway was Coca-Cola as an official sponsor for COP27. As plastic is made from fossil materials, and the burning of fossil fuels (of which plastic is a bi-product) is the biggest contributor to global warming, so the fact that we had the world’s biggest plastic polluter sponsor the event was… odd.

Also check out: 5 types of greenwashing

Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator, Break Free From Plastic, said: “Instead of allowing companies like Coke to greenwash their image, governments need to compel polluters to invest in reuse and alternative product delivery systems that avoid the problem in the first place. This is one of the key systemic changes required for the world to avert the full consequences of climate change and plastic pollution. Governments worldwide now have the justification and opportunity to effectively address and reverse the plastic pollution crisis by coming up with a global plastics treaty that cuts plastic production, makes corporations accountable for the pollution they are causing and mainstreams reuse-based alternatives.” (Break Free from Plastic, 2022).

Unsweet marketing strategies

Now the craving for soft drinks hasn’t just appeared on its own, consumers are constantly being influenced by advertisements to purchase these products. It is around this time that some genius is commenting “Well, seeing an ad doesn’t force your to buy the products”, “no one is forcing you”, and “you can use your brain and simply not buy it”. Yeah. But that does disregard the massive passive effect ads have on your brains, and whose responsibility it is in the end. This article from the UK reveals that junk food brands spend 27 times more on advertising than the UK government spends on healthy eating campaigns (Spencer, 2017), but let’s pretend that that doesn’t have an effect. By far the best example of the power of advertising when it comes to soft drinks is the Coco-Cola Holiday Truck, they have straight-up trademarked Christmas and are using the Holidays to drive up sales.

Luxury ice and human rights

Now changing the pace before we get to the “how to consume this product more sustainably” chapter, I would love to talk about how the way we consume these, and other beverages globally says a lot about our current political landscape, and I think how we distribute water especially says a lot about what is being valued in capitalism and in our political systems. Right now we are seeing huge trends in social media, and especially TikTok surrounding how to drink and consume water and ice. People are making all different types of flavour waters, with syrup and squash, and freezing ice in designated ice freezers. Overall, there is a lot to be said about these trends, but mostly I think they are a clear indication of our economic situation. With inflation and prices on everything from food and water to heating and electricity going up, what is considered “mainstream luxury” often changes. In many ways, the sudden popularity of fancy ice and water resembles “the lipstick effect”.  “The lipstick effect” can be traced back to the Great Depression in the 1930s. Industrial production in the US was reduced by 50%, people were poor and overall resources and means were lacking, however, during the same time cosmetic sales spiked. The same things happened during the 08 crash, where especially nail polish sales went through the roof. Buying small luxuries can help consumers feel better in a time of economic uncertainty, and with social media, these tendencies are even more easily recognizable.

And speaking of water, bottled water might be its own microcosm of capitalism. Seemingly everybody should have access to water, everybody needs it, and actually, we have plenty of it. Or at least, we would have if so much of your fresh water wasn’t polluted by the textile industry, or animal ag, or fossil fuels. Luckily, we have companies that can take water from local springs, bottle it up and sell it back to the people that previously would access the spring, neat. Nestlé especially has received backlash, since the 60s honestly, for their questionable business practices, including the baby formula scandal in the 70s that killed 1 million infants (Krasny, 2012) or the more recent 2015 bottled water scandal where it was uncovered that Nestlé has been taking water from national forest areas using a permit that expired in 1988 (James, 2022). With water shortages becoming a rapidly increasing issue, profiting from selling bottled water at a 1000% markup makes you the bad guy. The former CEO of Nestlé also stated that “calling water a human right is extreme”, so yeah.  

This is obviously not exclusive to Nestlé, both Coca-Cola Company and Pepsi CO owns dozens of companies, also companies that sell bottled water. And I think that both our consumer patterns regarding these products as well as the relationship these billion-dollar businesses have with our governments and the power they have to include themselves in certain narratives while keeping themselves out of others say a lot about our priorities today. I don’t want to throw “We live in a society” into the mix that’s so lazy, but these products shouldn’t be a billion-dollar business. The profits earned from selling these products are not put back into bettering the planet, at least not on any meaningful scale.

Soft drink companies have a long tradition of setting up factories in poor countries to exploit cheap labour, but also to flood the local markets with their products, however, we are seeing more and more of these communities take opposition. San Cristóbal in Mexico rebelled against these corporations as well as their governments for allowing it. In 2017, the Tamil Nadu region also boycotted both Coca-Cola and Pepsi for taking water from rivers so that farmers lost their crops during a severe drought (Doshi, 2017).

How to consume soft drinks sustainably

Have a soft drink if you crave it, not because you’re thirsty, if you’re thirsty have water, and use soft drinks as some extra, but try not to use them as your primary beverage. It’s fine to have one every now and then, but it is easy to lower your footprint and support big corporations by reducing the number of soft drinks you have during your day, week, month, you know.

And choose tap water

Choose a packaging that is recyclable near you, recycling is not universal, some places can and can’t recycle certain materials, while they might be effective in other places. If you don’t have a well-functioning recycling system in your local area for glass, aluminium, or plastic, then use your soft drink in a different packaging.

While it might be difficult to find an option that isn’t owned by a huge corporation, some small local businesses do in fact still exist many places, often you can turn the packaging over to see who the main company is, however, it is always that that is guaranteed, but we do our best. Supporting a smaller business is oftentimes also better for the planet.

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