On Dec. 4, 1990, Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co. both announced that they planned to market cola in bottles made from recycled PET.They raced to be the first to market post-consumer-content bottles. They talked about technologies, suppliers and Food and Drug Administration approval.
Today, the bottles are used widely in foreign countries — but no longer are produced in the United States.
What happened to the hype?
According to the cola giants, it was a matter of economics.
``In the early 1990s, we came upon a new technology which turned out to be methanolysis,'' Carol Martel, global communications at Coca-Cola, said recently by telephone. ``We believed that it was something we could make work.''
At first, Hoechst Celanese Corp. supplied Coke with 25 percent recycled-content resin, using material that was regenerated in an expensive chemical process. Coke used the Hoechst material to win the recycled-content race, and Coke's first recycled-PET bottles hit store shelves in Charlotte, N.C., on March 12, 1991.
Pepsi lagged behind, introducing a recycled-content bottle in Sacramento, Calif., about eight months later.
Coke eventually rolled its recycled bottles into virtually every U.S. market. Martel said the company received little response from consumers, and tests done in Charlotte indicated that there was no particular consumer preference either way.
From the start, some critics said the effort was just a publicity ploy. The firms added to the circus atmosphere with stunts like passing out recycled-content bottles to every member of Congress.
``They've lost track of the economics,'' complained Thomas M. Duff, president and chief executive officer of Wellman Inc., the nation's largest PET recycler.
But while the cola giants made big headlines with the new bottles, they never took their eye off the bottom line. Coke officials all along told anyone who bothered to listen that if the bottles were too expensive, they would abandon the project.
``We never really got into a green-marketing-hype phase,'' Martel said. ``Our sincere belief at the time was that this was going to work. We feel that we are an innovative company and felt that we'd found a good technology. We were one of the first companies to use recycled content in food-grade packaging on a large scale, but we were not putting out a lot of advertising.''
``The bottom line is the importance of developing the market for recycled plastic,'' Pepsi spokesman Gary Gerdemann said at the time. ``We have to do that to have plastic remain a viable packaging material for us in the future.''
Pepsi said then that all its bottles eventually would contain recycled resin.
Coke quietly abandoned the recycled-content bottle push in 1994. As expected, it blamed the high cost of recycling.
``We stayed in the marketplace for 31/2 to four years,'' Martel said. ``After tweaking and renegotiating supply contracts, we had to step back and realize that it was not viable.''
Today, Atlanta-based Coke sells cola in recycled-content bottles in Australia, New Zealand and some European countries. Pepsi does not use recycled-content anywhere in the world, but spokesman Dave Dececco said Pepsi still is committed to making and using plastic bottles with recycled content. To that end, the Somers, N.Y.-based company said it continues to seek useful and cost-effective technologies.
Athens, Ga.-based GrassRoots Recycling Network contends that the commitment to manufacture recycled-plastic soda bottles was, in part, a response to several states' threats of minimum-content and container-deposit legislation.
But Martel said Coke had other reasons. ``Production supply for virgin PET came on-line that hadn't been there in the early '90s,'' she said. ``The pricing structure changed dramatically. PET bottles were still being recycled and were in good demand because other end markets and uses were growing.
``We made decisions based on the costs for the system to use recycled content. The cost of making food-grade in monolayer was far more because of the much more rigorous FDA regulations, compared to using it in carpet or auto parts.''
Yet, some critics today claim that more economical technologies now exist.
``In other countries, sandwiching recycled content between virgin layers has gone on for the last couple of years,'' said Lance King, GRRN spokesman and consultant. ``The mechanical process grinds the plastic, then washes at a high temperature, and it can be used without sandwiching. Both of these are substantially lower [in price] than the original technology [of chemical separation].''
``There is a lot of guesswork out there and, for competitive reasons, we don't disclose the price of making bottles,'' Coke's Martel said. ``But, I can tell you that virtually all of the guesses are wrong and don't reflect the cost to our system with price-cost comparisons and the purchasing process.''
While the multilayer process is more complicated, slower and requires specialty equipment and preforms, Martel said that the price of PET, as well as the cost structures, are different in Europe and other countries.
``Most of what we look at in the U.S. is monolayer,'' she said. ``This is based on technology, processes, costs and volume production requirements. We consider new options in technology for packaging every day.''
Coke continues to evaluate new recycling technology, Martel said.
``It must meet government approval, meet Coke quality requirements and performance and cost factors. We have a constant review and evaluation process.''