Why is the world’s biggest plastic polluter sponsoring the UN’s annual climate conference?

That was the question a small band of demonstrators—many clad in Coca-Cola’s trademark red, one dressed as a soda can—asked of passersby as they marched across Midtown yesterday to protest the beverage giant’s role in COP27 in Cairo.

Carrying signs and handing out information, activists from across the city and New England said they were motivated by what they see as corporate hypocrisy.

Eileen Ryan, a Boston tour guide and leader of the Greater Boston chapter of Beyond Plastics, a Vermont nonprofit that aims to end plastic pollution, first learned of Coke’s COP27 sponsorship from her neighbor, a climate reporter. 

“I was outraged,” she said. Then she wondered, “Is anybody doing anything about this?” 

Together with the anti-plastic pollution WasteNøt (a working group under the climate activism organization 350NYC), the chapter organized the march on 42nd Street from the UN headquarters to Bryant Park.

They handed out 250 postcards that described how to participate in “Trashiversary,” a global protest movement of consumers who mail plastic waste back to the world’s top polluting companies, which include Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Unilever.

Marchers also offered an altered version of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” which was created as an advertising jingle for Coke in 1971.

“I’d like to teach the world a thing about the plastics industry,” they sang. “I’d like the world to understand the hazards of the Cola company.” 

Alexandra Corbett, left, was among the protesters who marked a moment in front of Eduaro Kobra’s UN mural, to spotlight global inaction on climate.

They paused to chant in front of Eduardo Kobra’s mural on sustainability at the UN headquarters, which depicts a man handing the Earth off to a young child.

“It’s an ironic comment that nothing much is happening at COP27,” said Jane Selden, a retired CUNY community college instructor who is a WasteNøt cofounder. “Especially in terms of the developing countries not getting the money that they need to deal with the climate crisis.”

Curious onlookers took photos of the protesters. A group of schoolchildren ran up to take the postcards near the UN before the demonstrators moved west to sing on the steps of the main branch of the New York Public Library and then near the Bryant Park skating rink.

“I hope people see the protest and just begin the process of questioning, what is plastic? Is it really something neutral?” said Alexandra Corbett, 29, a student from Brooklyn. She first learned about the protest through Bennington College, where Beyond Plastics was launched in 2019. “People really don’t have a foothold on how dangerous it is—and the fact that it will be here forever.” 

What’s left behind

Plastic is made from crude oil and more than 10,000 chemicals are used in different plastic products. Many of these chemicals are hazardous, have not been studied and not regulated. 

“You’re talking about Big Oil, which is tremendous money, tremendous power. So how do you confront that? I think it’s with knowledge, and this message,” said author Eve Schaub, who discovered how broken the recycling system is while writing A Year of No Garbage. She drove from Vermont in her Subaru to join the protest. “We care about the environment, but when it comes down to it, we care a lot more about our own bodies—and that’s what’s being threatened. This is toxic stuff, and we should treat it like hazardous waste.”

Eileen Ryan marched in her Coke can costume: “We should go after them because they can be a model and a leader. And other people might follow them.”

Members of Beyond Plastics’ virtual group, which meets up once a month and includes members from numerous local chapters, had long been brainstorming ways to spread their message. “We had a meeting where we talked about, ‘Well what can we do to target specifically Coca-Cola?’” said Ryan. “We should go after them because they can be a model and a leader. And other people might follow them.”

Coca-Cola alone produces over three million tons of plastic a year, and only 5% of the plastic Americans toss into recycling bins actually gets recycled. Most of it just ends up in landfills or the ocean, where it separates into tiny beads of microplastics, which, when consumed by fish, then enters the food chain. 

“In school I was always just taught, ‘Yeah, recycle! Recycling is important, it’s your duty as a citizen,’” said Corbett. “You know, ‘Littering is a problem caused by individual consumers, rather than, ‘Oh, actually, this stuff was never even recyclable.’”

Coca-Cola, pointing to its “World Without Waste” initiative, said its support for COP27 “is in line with our science-based target to reduce absolute carbon emissions 25% by 2030, and our ambition for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Packaging represents around 30% of our carbon footprint.”

In an emailed statement, the company said: “We share the goal of eliminating waste from the ocean and appreciate efforts to raise awareness about this challenge. We are prepared to do our part and have set ambitious goals for our business, starting with helping to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one we sell – regardless of where it comes from – by 2030.“

Coca-Cola announced a new prototype bottle made from 100% plant-based plastic (bPET) in October 2021. It’s unclear when those bottles will roll out. 

“Nobody’s asking for more single-use plastics to package their cucumbers in. Nobody’s demanding that,” Ryan said. “We need legislative change and corporate accountability.”

Discussions on a proposed 2024 global plastics treaty to curb plastic production are expected to begin at the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee meeting in Uruguay on Nov. 27. Activists would like to see “reduction, reuse and redesign” of plastics—rather than simply another push for recycling.

My hope is that when the treaty is finalized at the end of 2024, it will be legally binding,” said Selden, “and not focus only on waste management, but on the entire lifecycle of plastic.”