Sustainability spotlight

Coca-Cola: 'We’re determined to do everything we can to ensure packaging does not end up as litter or in our rivers and oceans'

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

pic:getty/manus 1550
pic:getty/manus 1550

Related tags Bottles Recycling

Last week Coca-Cola announced that it aims to collect 100% of its packaging in Western Europe as part of its latest sustainability commitments. But how does Coca-Cola hope to achieve this, and how can it encourage consumers to recycle packaging after use?

Coca-Cola European Partners – which covers 13 territories including Great Britain, France, Germany and Sweden - says that it will need to work with multiple partners and use the power and influence of its brands to encourage people to think about what happens to their bottles after use.

As it set out in its sustainability commitments last week: “Although all of our bottles and cans are 100% recyclable, they don’t always end up being recycled. There has been considerable progress in the collection and recycling of packaging, but in many of our geographies in Western Europe we still have a lot to do, together with municipalities, industry partners and consumers, to ensure our packaging is collected and recycled.

“We are determined to do more and lead the way towards a circular economy where 100% of our packaging can be collected, reused or recycled, and where none of it ends up as litter or in the oceans.”

Plastic bottles: waste vs recycling

Taking the UK as an example, the average household uses 480 plastic bottles a year across all brands and products, but only recycles 240 of them, according to recycling campaign Recycle Now. This means nearly half (44%) are not recycled.

Therefore, for this market alone, of the 35m+ bottles that are used per day, nearly 16m bottles aren’t put out to be recycled.

Globally, more than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016: up from 300bn a decade ago. This is projected to increase to 583.3bn by 2021,​ according to Euromonitor International.

But in 2016, fewer than half of the bottles bought were collected for recycling and only 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead, bottles end up in landfill or in the ocean.

Given the size of its business and the number of plastic bottles produced, Coca-Cola has come under fire from environmental campaigners – most prominently from Greenpeace, which runs a global campaign calling for Coca-Cola to shrink its plastic footprint.

plastic bottle recycling istock

Greenpeace claims that an estimated 100bn plastic bottles are produced by the soft drinks giant globally (and criticizes the company for failing to disclose​ the size of its plastic footprint for a survey released in March this year).

Greenpeace has been calling on all soft drinks companies to ‘accept their responsibility for ocean plastic pollution’ in the following ways: prioritising reusable packaging and developing delivery systems based on reuse; ensure all packaging is made from 100% post consumer recycled content, as well as being recyclable or compostable; and disclose the types and amount of plastic they use, reuse and recycle.

Collection challenges

CCEP sustainability commitments

  • 50% of Western Europe sales from low/no calorie drinks by 2025
  • 100% collection of packaging and 50% rPET for plastic bottles
  • 40% of management positions held by women

Coca-Cola’s latest sustainability goals​ in Western Europe include ensuring that 100% of packaging is recyclable or reusable; and it says it will work with local and national partners to collect all its packaging by 2025.

“We know that this is an ambitious target, and that it won’t be easy to achieve in isolation – success will require continued collaboration with many different partners,” ​Joe Franses, Vice-President of Sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners, told this publication.

“We will need to work with packaging recovery organizations, local municipalities and industry bodies in all of our markets, and it will require us to drive a step change in packaging collection, especially in those markets where recovery rates have stalled and where we know that our packaging does not always get collected for recycling.”

For example, this means partnering with local household collection or deposit return schemes.

A bottle love story

Coca-Cola also says it will use the power of its brands to inspire people to recycle.

“Consumers do have an important role to play,” ​continued Franses. “In the past we have explored the barriers people face in recycling, including the inconsistencies that exist in the collection and recycling infrastructure in markets like Great Britain, and the lack of understanding of what happens when a bottle or can is recycled.

“We recognize our responsibility to inspire everyone to recycle, and that means helping them to understand how and where they can do it, and why it is so important. We want people to understand what happens to their bottles when they go into a recycling bin. 

“Across our markets, we already support a wide variety of consumer recycling and anti-litter campaigns and we will aim to do much more to use our brands to inspire consumers to recycle their beverage packaging.”

To help encourage recycling in the UK, Coca-Cola recently ran its ‘A Bottle Love Story’ advert to create more awareness of how recycling can create a second life for a plastic bottle.

It is also putting a new recycling message on bottles, and promoting recycling and festivals and events.

As to the recyclability of packaging: Coca-Cola’s cans and bottles are recyclable. However, it has pledged that by 2025 all​ of its packaging – which also includes cartons and pouches – will also be fully recyclable and compatible with local packaging recovery infrastructure.

Why don’t ambitions stretch to 100% rPET?

100% rPET

Smoothie brand innocent used 100% rPET for its bottles, but later reduced the rPET content: ‘unfortunately, the quality of recycled plastic we were using wasn’t great and so we had to reduce the rPET content.’ ​The brand, which has been owned by Coca-Cola since 2013, now uses between 30% and 50% rPET in its bottles.

In the UK, Lucozade Ribena Suntory now uses 100% rPET in all its Ribena bottles. In the US, PepsiCo’s Naked Juice uses 100% rPET, as does Nestle’s Natural Spring Water.

Coca-Cola also says it will lead the way in pioneering sustainable packaging – including renewable materials and smart new ways to reduce packaging waste.

It has pledged to double the content of recycled plastic in its PET bottles to 50% by 2025.

Yet this has not impressed Greenpeace, which says that 100% recycled content should be ‘completely realistic’.

Coca-Cola has responded to this by saying that the greatest impact will be reached by including rPET across all lines – rather than focusing on a select few brands with 100% rPET.

“Today, 21% of all of the PET we purchase is recycled PET (rPET),” ​said Franses. “ In recent years, in many of our territories, rPET has been more expensive than virgin PET so it has been harder to sustain our use of it. However, our new commitment means that we will more than double our use of rPET by 2025.

“We have demonstrated in the past that a bottle made of 100% rPET is possible, however our strategy is focused on using recycled PET across all of our plastic bottles, rather than using it for selected products as we believe that this will have the greatest impact.”

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