In the early 1990s, Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co. miscalculated how strongly the public felt about recycling. They each made a commitment to use recycled PET — commitments that have been an embarrassment to the companies ever since. Now both companies — again, led by Coke — are once again making plans to boost their use of recycled PET. Is this a signal that the public is starting to care about recycling again?
Although a small, vocal and fairly well-financed group of critics has managed to keep the spotlight on Coke, we doubt the issue will spread to other companies or products. Instead, the effort now will shift to boosting PET recycling through new and expanded bottle-deposit programs.
But unless Coke and Pepsi support expanded deposits — and we doubt they will — PET recycling rates will continue to stagnate. Instead, Coke's decision will just mean more competition for the bottles that are being collected already, and no real progress for plastics recycling.
Back in December 1990, when Coke and Pepsi first announced their plans to use repolymerized PET, some skeptics wondered aloud whether the effort was just a public relations exercise. At the time, both Coke and Pepsi denied the charge.
But the companies trumpeted the decision to use recycled content, then quietly backed away without a peep. Today Coke insists that it did not break a promise when it moved away from using recycled PET. But the defense rings hollow. The company certainly left some consumers with the impression that Coke has been using recycled content all along.
Now, nearly 10 years later, Coke's U.S. bottlers are venturing into recycled PET packaging once again. This time, however, it appears the company may be more concerned with action and less with taking credit for the project.
It's tempting to be skeptical and chalk up the difference to Coke's unrelated but well-documented troubles, including fallout from a product-contamination scare in Europe and allegations of racial discrimination in the United States. We wonder if Coca-Cola was really on top of its game, would it have allowed the news of a 10 percent recycled-content goal to dribble out the way it has during the last few months?
Plastics News has been following this story for months, and frankly, we expected a typical big New York or Atlanta press conference, complete with photos, prototype bottles, news releases and executive sound bites. Instead we got a quiet confirmation of what we've been reporting since last fall. Few details are forthcoming.
Nevertheless, we're willing to recognize Coke for the new improved attitude, and hope it's a signal that the company is willing to stick with the effort regardless of shifting public opinion and fluctuating resin prices.