In 2010, carbonated soft drinks emitted 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 and made up 13% of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food and drink industry. The packaging is the main contributor to the environmental impacts of soft drinks, corresponding to 59% to 77% of its impact. These impacts are highest for glass packaging and lowest for PET plastic bottles because of the different processes and primary materials necessary to make both. The global warming potential (GWP) of soft drinks could be reduced by between 32% and 48% if 40% to 60% of PET bottles were recycled. In terms of glass, reusing glass bottles between one and five times could reduce the GWP by up to 2.5 times.
Ingredients used in soft drinks accounted for 7% to 14% of the GWP, mainly because of sugar. The agricultural processes for growing sugar require pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Sugarcane is particularly problematic as it requires a lot of water and can cause erosion and water contamination. Producing 0.5 litres of soft drink can require between 170 and 310 litres of water because of the water intensive nature of growing sugarcane. For perspective, other soft drinks like the up and coming kombucha, whose main culprit crop for its water footprint is tea, requires only 34 litres of water per cup.
Soft drinks’ high sugar and acid content has harmful effects on dental and general health of consumers, including children. These can cause dental caries, tooth erosion and lead to obesity thus increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. However, manufacturers and governments have been counteracting these negative impacts by banning soft drinks in schools, restricting advertising and taxing high sugar soft drinks.
Considering the use of sugarcane in carbonated drinks and the fact that 25% of the UK’s sugar comes from sugarcane imported from outside of the EU, it is also important to shed light on the typically low wages and high levels of child labour in sugarcane farms. Wages are low for workers in sugar mills, with sugarcane being known as the “hunger crop” due to low earnings. Research has even shown that some Bonsucro-certified sugar mills in Brazil pay a legal minimum wage which is incompatible with the living wage required for decent living standards. However, Bonsucro does state that farmers’ pay, on average, is 20% more than national minimum wages. Finally, child labour is also common in various sugar mills in different countries. For instance, one Fairtrade certified farm in Belize was found to use child labour during school hours and was then taken off the certification list. The certification was reinstated after the local industry addressed the problem, however considering 14% of the UK’s raw sugarcane was imported from Belize in 2016, this is particularly problematic.