Colruyt biggest polluter of the Brussels Canal

During 2.5 months, we investigated who the top polluters of the Brussels canal are. Out of the 2,000 pieces of waste we fished out of the water with our kayaks, Colruyt emerged as the top producer of the most items, a fully Belgian company. Colruyt is followed by Coca-Cola and Alma, making up the same top three as our Brand Audit in 2020, with the difference that Colruyt overtakes Coca-Cola for the first place.

Today, plastic pollution has reached alarming proportions and affects all life forms on Earth. Brand audits are very useful in demonstrating the structural causes of plastic pollution, namely that companies are responsible for producing excessive and uncontrollable amounts of single-use packaging waste.

We, as Canal It Up, do not see fishing waste out of the water as an end in itself. If we do not continue to search for structural solutions to avoid plastic pollution in the first place, we could go on for years picking up waste without making any difference. That’s why it is important to identify where the waste comes from and who the producers are.

The most identified products/brands of Colruyt are Everyday (54), Carapils (21), and Boni (6). However, we must consider that some of the other retrieved items made by other producers might have been purchased from Colruyt. In that case, Colruyt is not a producer but a distributor, and therefore partially responsible for these littered items. Furthermore, Colruyt is known as a supermarket where all products are triple-packaged with plastic films to be sold in larger quantities. However, these films cannot be traced back to the supermarket as they do not bear brand names.

In our list, the second-place holder, Coca-Cola, has been ranked number one in the global Brand Audit van Break Free From Plastic for the past five years, making it the world’s largest plastic polluter. Wherever you conduct a brand audit worldwide, Coca-Cola consistently emerges as the top polluter. Therefore, we were surprised to see Colruyt surpassing Coca-Cola in Brussels this time. The most identified Coca-Cola brands are Coca-Cola itself (42), Chaudfontaine (8), and Fanta (10).

Almost 100% of the retrieved items from Alma are Cristaline water bottles. And out of all the retrieved plastic bottles, 58% are water bottles (half of which are Cristaline). While we communicate with limited resources about tap water and reusable bottles, supermarkets and producers use multiple means to promote water in plastic bottles, claiming it is convenient and delicious. Why extract oil from the ground, transport it, convert it into plastic bottles, pump water to fill the bottles, transport them to the store, and then transport them home when the same pumped water is available from the tap without any packaging waste or associated oil consumption?

For decades, the public has been conditioned to believe that the problem of plastic pollution is caused by its own undisciplined ways and the failure of governments to establish effective waste management systems. Belgians are not known to be less disciplined than other inhabitants of the Earth, and apparently, we excel in waste management. Yet, our waterways are filled with plastic packaging waste daily, which ultimately ends up in the sea.

The majority of the waste in the Brussels canal is blown in by the wind. Dirty streets directly translate into polluted waterways. By looking at the street, you can already determine if the nearby waterways are clean or not. Everywhere you go, you are overwhelmed by single-use packaging waste. During this summer period, we are bombarded with street advertisements for water and soft drinks in single-use containers, and supermarkets offer almost exclusively single-use packaging options. No well-behaved population or efficient waste management system can counteract this. Society is inundated with packaging waste.

Supermarkets and producers have a crucial role to play in transitioning to reusable packaging, which is the only realistic way to overcome the plastic waste crisis and take a step toward mitigating climate change. However, there is no sign of this happening. On the contrary, for decades, the focus has shifted to waste management and recycling, and the industry shifts blame onto consumers through cunning campaigns and clean-up actions. The industry resists environmental measures such as the introduction of deposit systems and, more recently, the increase in reuse rates at the European level. All the while, the production of single-use plastic packaging continues to rise annually, and the promises made by producers repeatedly prove to be empty.

Now more than ever, governments must hold polluting companies accountable for their actions. Companies need to disclose their entire plastic footprint, reduce their plastic production and usage, reinvent their packaging to be reusable or free of plastic, and change their delivery systems to embrace refillable and reusable options.

A notable example of environmental measures taken is the complete absence of plastic bottles in the brand audits conducted in Denmark, where the deposit system keeps these bottles entirely out of nature. Another example is the decline from 30,200 collected plastic bags in the national Brand Audit in Tanzania in 2018 to just 203 plastic bags in 2020 due to the introduction of a ban on plastic bags in 2019.

Other findings from the Brand Audit:

The fourth place is entirely occupied by Capri-Sun drink pouches, which are also distributed by Coca-Cola. These beverage packages have been consistently and abundantly found in the canal since the conception of Canal It Up, and moreover, these packages are not recyclable.

The most commonly found items in the water are plastic bottles (15%), cans (11%), polystyrene foam pieces (10%), plastic bags (9%), snack and cookie packaging (9%), and candy wrappers (5%).

Today’s norm is supermarket shelves filled with single-use packaging, as well as advertisements featuring products in single-use packaging. When consumers are confronted with this norm everywhere, allowed by the government, it is difficult to expect them to transition to more environmentally friendly alternatives on their own. This norm must be dismantled to create a new norm, one with reusable packaging and systems that enable reuse and refilling. Only then will we be able to effectively solve the plastic crisis.