Coca-Cola Co. said it plans to use 10 percent recycled content in several billion of its PET bottles this year. It's Coke's first significant announcement in a decade that it is getting back into recycled content, and in some ways, is a victory for environmentalists who have been hammering the company to do it. But the decision also is prompting worry from recyclers about how the soft drink giant's plans will impact recycled PET markets.
Atlanta-based Coke plans to use a direct-blend process to make the bottles, along the lines of what it uses in Australia. Coke officials said the amount of recycled content could depend on availability and other economic factors.
"We expect this year for our bottlers to produce several billion bottles using recycled content at a 10 percent level," said Jeff Foote, Coke's director of corporate environmental affairs. "It could fluctuate, but 10 percent is a safe number."
Foote declined to say how much of its bottle mix could have recycled resin. However, the head of Coke's bottling cooperative for the western United States wants to be able to offer recycled content in one of every four bottles.
"During the year we'll have reached an ability to get to 25 percent of the bottles having 10 percent [recycled] content," said Robert Tremblay, president of Western Container Corp. in Midland, Texas. "That's what I'd like to be able to see to support this Coca-Cola initiative."
Coke is paying a premium now for recycled-content bottles but believes it should "be able to compete with what our system pays for virgin [resin]," Foote said.
The company declined to talk specifically about which direct-blend technology it would use.
"We are in a business enterprise where we are trying to incorporate recycled content," Foote said. "We are not trying to do this in a public relations stunt. I can't get into a whole lot of detail about suppliers x, y and z."
Carlos Gutierrez, president of United Resource Recovery Corp. in Spartanburg, S.C., said his PET recycling firm has been approached by Coke and others with inquiries into their technology, but so far, the company is not involved in Coke's current efforts.
"We are working with them and all the bottlers," Gutierrez said. Regardless of what process Coke uses, Gutierrez said recyclers who depend on clean feedstock — especially from deposit states — should start to expect more competition for bottles and higher prices.
Earlier this year Coke acknowledged that it was looking to commercialize technology developed by PET recycler Phoenix Technologies LP of Bowling Green, Ohio.
Officials from major PET recycler Wellman Inc. of Shrewsbury, N.J., would not comment on its involvement with Coke. Calls to other U.S. PET recyclers were not returned.
Tremblay said over the long term, the soft drink industry will need depolymerization technology, because the increasing variety of bottle color and design will make mechanical recycling tougher.
Depolymerization breaks down PET bottles into monomers and then rebuilds new polymers, while a direct-blend method preserves existing polymers but cleans them to be reused.
Coke used depolymerization in its recycled-content trial a decade ago but abandoned it as too expensive.
Foote declined to say which Coke products will have recycled content.
Coke's announcement was uncharacteristically low-key, unlike its high-profile declaration a decade ago that it would use 25 percent recycled content. Observers speculated that Coke did not want to raise expectations.
Without firm details of Coke's plans, industry observers were left guessing at the impact on recycling markets.
"It will have, in the long run, a positive effect," said Frank Mechura, president of blow molder Constar Inc., one of several competitors offering recycled content technology. "Anything that drives up the recycling rate is good. It's too low to begin with."
Coke's decision will encourage the use of recycled content by other companies, and it will encourage more bottles to get captured by recycling systems, he said.
PET bottle recycling fell from 39.7 percent in 1995 to 24.8 percent in 1998, the last year figures are available.
Estimating how much Coke will use is tough, though.
Coke does not disclose how much plastic resin it consumes. Industry sources estimated Coke uses about 500 million pounds of PET, while environmentalists estimated 800 million pounds.
About 745 million pounds of PET was collected for recycling in the United States in 1998, according to figures from the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C.
If Coke uses 500 million pounds of virgin resin, then 10 percent recycled content would require about 50 million pounds. That figure would suggest that Coke's impact might not be huge. But industry observers say the market for recycled resin is very tight now, particularly because Chinese companies are buying a lot of PET bottles as raw material for fiber plants in Asia.
"That is one of the things really complicating this," said Luke Schmidt, president of NAPCOR. "The Chinese are really out there buying. ... Most all of the export material is going to China."
NAPCOR said 89 million pounds of PET bottles were exported in 1998. Schmidt said 1999 figures are not available.
"We have been saying for the last two or three years the issue is not market demand but supply," said Schmidt. "Anytime you have a significant new end use announced — and one could look at this as significant — that will put more pressure" on markets.
Coke's announcement left both industry and environmentalists saying that more needs to be done to collect more bottles for recycling — they just differ on how to do that.
The GrassRoots Recycling Network of Athens, Ga., which has been pressuring Coke for several years and ran high-profile newspaper ads accusing Coke of backing away from its 25 percent pledge, said the Coke announcement is a significant step.
But GRRN said that Coke needs to do more to boost collection. For GRRN, that means supporting bottle bills.
"The real challenge now is to boost the collection in recycling," said Lance King, GRRN spokesman. "The only means we've seen developed in the last 30 years to ensure that a majority of bottles get recycled is bottle bills."
"A real victory means increasing the total number of bottles being recycled each year, not simply moving material from carpeting to bottles," he said.
States with deposit programs collect two to three times as much PET as non-bottle bill states, King said.
But Coke and much of the rest of the industry regard bottle bills as a tax, and favor working to get more collection out of the existing curbside programs.
Communities do not support recycling programs with consumer education as much as they used to, Schmidt said.
Observers said Coke's announcement is likely to put more pressure on Pepsi-Cola Co. A Pepsi spokesman said the company does not use recycled PET in its bottles but is "very much committed" to doing so and is exploring a number of technologies.
Plastics News staff reporter Jinida Doba contributed to this story.