Coca-Cola: 'Recycling rates aren’t dramatically shifting'

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	Makiko Tanigawa
Source: Getty/ Makiko Tanigawa

Related tags Coca-cola Package Plastic Sustainability Recycling

Even though 59% of Americans have access to curbside recycling, only 27% of plastic bottles are currently recycled – a grim statistic that is not only bad for the environment but also bad for CPG businesses, such as The Coca-Cola Co., that are striving to incorporate more recycled material in their packaging.

With an ambitious goal to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030, The Coca-Cola Co. is confronting the limited availability of food-grade recycled plastics, which the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services’ Mechanical Recycling Supply Tracker estimated late last year at about only 10% of the global annual capacity of recycled polymers of more than 45 million metric tons.

Of this, the vast majority (82%) was recycled polyethylene terephthalate, which is used, among other ways, to create clear bottles, 12% was recycled polyethylene and 6% recycled polypropylene.

Competing for tight supplies with other major CPG food and beverage companies that have made similar high-profile commitments to use more recycled plastics in their packaging, The Coca-Cola Company is pacing its roll out of packages made from recycled resins while simultaneously working to increase limited supplies.

“We have a few really laser focused goals on driving the circular economy, including a goal to put up to 50% recycled material in our packaging and a goal to collect a bottle or can for every one that we sell,” ​creating a virtuous circle of demand and supply for food-grade recycled plastics, said Christine Yeager, director, sustainability at The Coca-Cola Co. North America, told FoodNavigator-USA.

In pursuing these goals, which are included in The Coca-Cola Co.’s World Without Waste initiative​, she explained, the company has launched several packages in the US made from 100% recycled PET, including as of last year 13.2 ounce bottles of Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero Sugar, and Coca-Cola flavors in California, Florida and select states in the Northeast. Also in the New York and California markets it has launched 20-ounce bottles for select brands, including Coke, Diet Coke and Dasani, with another brand launching nationwide this summer.

“So, we’re continuing to build more and more recycled material into our portfolio, but some of the challenges are the availability of food grade quality material,”​ which requires more material to be collected and recycled, Yeager said.

Will ‘demystifying’ recycling with Bill Nye encourage consumer participation?

To encourage more Americans to recycle plastic bottles, and simultaneously help The Coca-Cola Co. reach another goal of collecting one bottle or can for each one it creates, the company recently teamed with celebrity scientist Bill Nye to create a whimsical stop-motion video ​that “demystifies” the recycling process, Yeager said.

The short video, produced by Mackinnon & Saunders of Fantastic Mr. Fox fame, breaks down the ideal recycling process, and invites Americans to join The Coca-Cola Co. in its initiative to create a World Without Waste, Yeager explained.

When the video was released earlier this spring, the backlash was swift and harsh with many critics claiming it was greenwashing and shifting the obligation to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging from the manufacturer to the consumer.

Yeager acknowledged that the video likely will not change recycling statistics “right away,” but she said she hoped it would shine a light on and encourage more people to participate in the “journey” of creating a more circular economy.

Creating value for r-PET

Part of the journey is signaling The Coca-Cola Company’s commitment to use more recycled PET and increase its value, Yeager said.

While the idea of wanting to drive up the cost of a key packaging component may sound counterintuitive, especially given inflation, Yeager explained that if recycled PET is valued higher and municipalities can sell it for more money they are more likely to keep it out of the landfill. As it stands now, some municipalities can’t recoup enough funding for recycled PET or find a buyer and it is disposed.

The added income from recycled PET also could help municipalities reinforce or build out their recycling infrastructure, which in many locations is in desperate need of an upgrade.

‘Recycling rates aren’t dramatically shifting at scale’

Over the years, The Coca-Cola Co. and The Coca-Cola Foundation have worked closely with environmental organizations to support recycling programs, including by donating more than 1 million recycling bins over the past decade and donating more than $17m in grants to The Closed Loop Fund and The Recycling Partnership and others to expand curbside recycling and educate Americans about recycling, Yeager said.

She added The Coca-Cola Co. recently helped launch as a funding partner with The Recycling Partnership the Recycling Inclusion Fund​, which she described as a “unique funding stream to address racial disparities and systemic challenges in the US waste and recycling industry.” ​Other inaugural funding partners include 3M, Arconic Foundation, Cox Enterprises, Kroger’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation, Procter & Gamble, and TAZO.

In addition, she said, the company is working with the NextGen Consortium to expand reusable packaging systems​, particularly in foodservice, such as refillable cups.

“What we have found with all of these investments is that they’re great for those communities and they are recouping quite a few pounds of material, which is how they measure yield,”​ she said.

But, she added, “at the end of the day, the recycling rates aren’t dramatically shifting at scale.”

To address this and try to move the needle more substantially, Yeager said, The Coca-Cola Company is working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, American Beverage and the World Wildlife Fund to lay out a set of principles based on successes globally​. In the US, for example, this would include what a well-structured extended producer responsibility or deposit return scheme policy looks like.

In addition, she said, “we are actively having conversations with policy makers about collection policy that can work better for the nation, because I think that’s where there’s a lot of opportunity to really make improvements at scale.”

Reducing reliance on virgin plastic, single use packaging

As admirable, and necessary, as recycling is, The Coca-Cola Company also is striving to reduce the use of virgin plastic by 3 million metric tons globally over the next five years.

“We’re doing that through light-weighting and increasing our use of recycled material, so that last year in 2021 we reduced our use of virgin PET by 50 million pounds,”​ Yeager said.

This year the company has committed to make at least 25% of its beverages sold globally in refillable and returnable glass or plastic bottles, which it is supporting through efforts such as a returnable glass bottle pilot currently running in Texas in grocery stores and in food service where consumers buy a six pack of glass bottles that they then bring back to the store to trade in or get money back.

The company also is offering refillable cups at Burger King and Tim Hortons through its partnership with Next Gen, she added.

“We are really hoping that some of these experiments help us continue to refine our strategies moving forward, and as time progresses, we want to identify and navigate additional ways to further reduce our environmental footprint,”​ Yeager said.

She added: “It certainly isn’t straightforward or an easy thing to do, otherwise we would have done it by now. But we will continue to work on our goals”​ and improve our sustainability.

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