A dozen companies are responsible for 70% of the branded packaging pollution found on UK beaches and the environment, charity Surfers Against Sewage has said.

Almost 4,000 citizen science volunteers across the UK collected litter along 13,000 miles of coasts, countryside, streets, rivers and green spaces over the past 12 months, producing data for the annual report into packaging pollution by the ocean conservation charity.

The report found that 12 companies, led by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and McDonalds and including other major drinks and snack brand companies, are responsible for most of the packaging carrying branding.

It also found that nearly half of the reported packaging would be covered by an “all-in” deposit return scheme. This would levy a charge that would be paid back to customers when they returned drinks containers for recycling.

An image of litter and message saying the ocean is filling up with plastic projected onto the White Cliffs of DoverA warning about plastic litter projected on to the White Cliffs of Dover (Surfers Against Sewage/PA)

Surfers Against Sewage is calling on the authorities to introduce an all-in deposit return scheme covering drinks containers of all sizes and materials, not just “on-the-go” smaller plastic bottles and cans.

The charity also insists that companies should take responsibility for harmful pollution and the entire lifecycle of their products, reduce their packaging, and adopt “circular” business models that reuse materials rather than letting them go to waste.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Year after year, our citizen science brand audit reveals the same huge companies are responsible for the packaging pollution choking our environment.

“Despite public sustainability commitments, these dirty brands are failing to take meaningful action to stop this harm.

“We cannot stand for this blatant greenwashing any longer. Systemic change is urgently needed to end the pollution swamping the land and ocean.

“Businesses need to take responsibility for their polluting products and transition to models of reduction and reuse.

“Legislation such as an ‘all-in’ deposit scheme needs to be introduced urgently and governments must hold these companies to account.”

The volunteers for the survey found 10,843 branded items in total, linked to 264 companies, with 28,727 items recorded overall including both branded and unbranded items.

Tobacco products made up around 15% of all the rubbish found on beaches, and more than a quarter of the unbranded litter was cigarette butts, polluting soil and beaches with single-use plastic and toxic chemicals, the charity said.

The data for the audit came from the charity’s million mile clean initiative,  which encouraged the public to clean up their local environment to protect oceans, beaches and wildlife and improve people’s connection with the outdoors.

A Walkers Crisp packet in the sand (Ian Lean/Surfers Against Sewage/PA)A Walkers Crisps packet in the sand (Ian Lean/Surfers Against Sewage/PA)

To highlight the pollution hitting the environment, Surfers Against Sewage commissioned a 100m by 400m projection of packaging waste stacked up against the White Cliffs of Dover.

A Coca-Cola spokesperson said: “We share the goal of eliminating plastic waste from the environment and acknowledge that The Coca-Cola Company has a responsibility to help solve this issue.

“That was the driving force in establishing our ‘world without waste’ goals, and while we continue to make progress against these targets, we are challenging ourselves to do more.

“Today, all of our packaging is 100% recyclable, and our aim is to get more of it back so that it can be recycled and turned into new packaging again.

“It’s disappointing to see any packaging being littered and that’s why we fully support the introduction of a well-designed deposit return scheme, which we know from results in other countries will encourage people to recycle, rather than litter or throw away.”

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A spokesperson for McDonalds said: “Over 90% of the packaging we use comes from recycled or renewable sources, and can be recycled.

“As a business we have committed to sourcing all of our packaging from renewable and recyclable materials by 2025.

“We remain committed to finding innovative ways to tackle the issue of packaging waste and are trialling a number of initiatives to help reduce littering.”

The spokesperson said that earlier this year, the company had a campaign to lead litter picks in local areas, which also called on customers to do their bit by not littering in the first place.

A PepsiCo UK spokesperson said the company had been supporting the Great British Spring Clean for the past four years and its packaging was labelled with messaging encouraging responsible disposal and recycling.

“We are committed to reducing the plastic we use across our entire portfolio – for example, earlier this year, we announced plans to eliminate virgin fossil-based plastic in all crisp and snack bags, delivered by using 100% recycled or renewable content in all packets by 2030.

“We also believe that deposit return schemes can provide a critical source of high quality, clean recyclate which is why we continue to be supportive of well-designed schemes,” the spokesperson said.