Coca-Cola Co. has tried two technologies for recycled content in PET bottles in a market trial, and is "reviewing possible commercialization" of at least one of them, according to a letter from the company. Whether that means the soft drink giant is on the verge of getting into recycled content in a major way is not clear, and environmentalists say the company still is using much less than 5 percent recycled content.
In a Jan. 19 letter to a plastics recycler, Jeff Foote, Coke's director of corporate environmental affairs, said Coke bottlers are looking at commercializing technology from Phoenix Technologies LP in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Phoenix claims its recycled-content PET blend mimics virgin performance and is price-competitive. The material incorporates PET collected from curbside recycling programs.
Jean Bina, manager of commercial operations at Phoenix, said the firm has added 10,000 square feet of space to produce the material. The plant will go into full production of 18 million to 20 million pounds of this resin in June, she said.
Scott Seydel, president of EvCo Research Inc. in Atlanta and the recipient of the Jan. 19 Coke letter, said Coke officials told him in January that they consider 25 percent recycled content an attainable goal.
"They are not going to rush headlong into a packaging change without doing the appropriate homework," Seydel said. But, he said, "I came away with the impression if they felt they could do it without risk to product and marketplace, they would do it tomorrow."
EvCo makes specialty coatings from recycled PET, and Seydel has met with Coke several times in recent months to talk about the company's recycling plans.
Coke officials would not confirm its recycled-content goals, and publicly the Atlanta-based company says only that it is using much more recycled-content plastic this year than last. Foote said he never told Seydel specific percentages.
Seydel said he has heard from sources outside Coke that it plans on using 30 million to 50 million pounds of recycled PET in bottles in 2000, while other published reports have estimated 20 million to 40 million. Coke used 1 million pounds in 1999, according to the company.
Foote's letter said most recycling technologies that Coke has examined cost too much, lacked regulatory approval or did not perform well. While the letter says two technologies have been tested, Foote would not say in a Feb. 10 telephone interview whether those technologies meet its criteria.
Foote said his letter mentioned Phoenix by name because it is public knowledge that Coke played a significant role in helping that technology get Food and Drug Administration approval. Coke declined to identify the second recycling technology.
Coke already uses the Phoenix process in Australia, and Phoenix's parent company, Plastic Technologies Inc. of Holland, Ohio, helped develop Coke's signature contour PET bottle in the early 1990s, Bina said.
Coke has been under pressure from environmentalists to boost recycled content. The GrassRoots Recycling Network in Athens, Ga., has led the effort, and has asked Coke to commit to reaching 25 percent recycled content.
Even with projections of the additional activity, conservative estimates would put Coke's use of recycled content at 2-4 percent in 2000, said GRRN spokesman Lance King.
"It would be significant to us if they were coming out saying they are going to use 25 percent recycled content," King said. "Frankly, part of what Coke is doing, aside from technical developments, is trying to take the heat off."
But some recyclers are worried about Coke's plans. If Coke boosts its use of post-consumer PET, that could drive up prices, particularly for bottles collected from state deposit programs.
Bina said Phoenix's technology helps alleviate that potential problem.
"It's kind of win-win because it gives the people that are recycling satisfaction, because it's using curbside as well as deposit material," she said. "It's offering significant economic advantages to the molders and [original equipment manufacturers] like Coke, and the consumer, because the economics are very compelling."
Foote's letter to Seydel said Coke's two bottle manufacturing cooperatives, "along with a few of our recycling partners," are studying commercialization of Phoenix technology. Last week, officials at four PET recyclers said Coke has not contacted them about the matter. Six other recyclers did not return calls.
Seydel sits on the board of Global Green USA, which is discussing forming a national pro-bottle-bill alliance. And he has personal ties to the Turner Foundation, which has funded environmentalists urging Coke to use more recycled content.
Plastics News reporters Bill Bregar and Jinida Doba contributed to this report.