WILMINGTON, DEL. — Is there enough recycled PET in the United States to satisfy Coca-Cola Co.'s needs?
That is the question some environmentalists are asking now that Coke officially has taken the wraps off its plans to ramp up recycled content in the United States.
Some experts say Coke's action will put a squeeze on already-tight supplies of recycled PET.
Coke has talked about boosting PET collection to ease the potential crunch. But its plans are so lacking in substantive detail that they open up the company to more criticism, according to environmentalists and shareholders who brought a resolution to Coke's annual shareholders meeting April 18 in Wilmington.
"It's pretty disappointing," said Conrad MacKerron, director of the As You Sow Foundation's corporate accountability program.
He complained that Coke Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Doug Daft's responses to questions about recycling "kept repeating the same thing" and "basically avoided all the questions."
"If they really are serious, they need to put a plan in place," MacKerron said. "Without that, it is greenwashing."
Some environmental groups attacked Coke in comments at the meeting, criticizing the company for fighting bottle bills and for not agreeing to use 25 percent recycled content in its plastic containers, as it does in Australia and several other countries.
Daft featured Coke's plans to use 10 percent recycled PET in all of its bottles by 2005. He told a crowd of shareholders that Coke does not have the technology to use more than 10 percent in the United States, but Coke officials later clarified Daft's statement to say while the technology exists, there is not enough capacity right now to get much higher than 10 percent in the United States.
Ben Jordan, environmental manager for Coca-Cola North America, said in an interview after the annual meeting that the company may go higher than 10 percent by 2005, but he declined to provide more specifics.
"When we get 10 percent, we'll start ratcheting up," he said. "It's more of a supply issue and a technological capacity issue."
What exactly would Coke's action mean for recycled PET markets?
That is hard to say. Atlanta-based Coke does not disclose how much PET its bottlers use, but environmentalists estimate from market-share data that it uses about 800 million pounds of PET a year.
Ten percent of 800 million, then, would be 80 million pounds of recycled PET. That is about 10 percent of the 770 million pounds of PET collected for recycling in 1999.
Predicting the numbers in 2005 is tough because presumably both numbers will grow. One complication: some observers also expect PET to become a larger part of Coke's packaging mix.
"You certainly could draw the inference that if Coke gets significantly more [recycled] PET, that will put more pressure on the existing users," said Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C.
While the shareholder groups praised Coke for doing much more than PepsiCo Inc., they would like Coke to endorse deposit legislation or provide a plan to get recycling to bottle-bill levels of about 80 percent.
Jordan said Coke will continue to fight bottle bills because they put tremendous burdens on bottlers and retailers. But he added Coke is putting a new emphasis on boosting falling recycling rates.
"I think in the past we've been so strong on our anti-deposit [position] that we haven't let ourselves be aggressive enough on getting rates up," Jordan said.
Coke will develop eight or 10 model programs this year to work with its large customers, like universities and cruise lines, and then expand those in 2002. It will insert pro-recycling messages into its consumer marketing, and is interested in the all-bottles program pushed by the American Plastics Council, he said.
"There are a million and one things between ... where we are now and laying down and accepting bottle bills," Jordan said. "Let's do a few of those million and one things, a lot of which we've never tried before."
In a development that may lead to some consensus on boosting supply, Coke said it will participate with a group of environmentalists on a study of the economics of recycling forms, including deposits and curbside collection.
Jordan said Coke and the group Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling will share the study's cost. BEAR is affiliated with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Global Green USA, and its membership includes the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That is significant because it may force Coke and BEAR to find common ground, rather than fund separate studies and each tout its favorite approach.
While the study is not likely to recommend one approach, the plan is not without some risk for Coke, Jordan said.
He added that Coke has considered joining BEAR. "The thought is, we'll do the study first and sort of see where it goes. We had entertained doing both at the same time," Jordan said.
While Coke did not present recycling-rate goals as some shareholders wanted, Plastics News previously reported that Coke has considered endorsing a goal of around 60 percent. But Jordan said that topic was shelved during recycling discussions Coke had with its eight largest bottlers.
Because recycling rates are calculated across the industry and not specific to a company, the bottlers had questions about Coke making that commitment on its own, he said.
"It doesn't make sense to have a Coca-Cola goal on recycling rates, at least for now," Jordan said.
A shareholders' resolution that asked Coke to support an 80 percent recycling rate and to use 25 percent recycled content by Jan. 1, 2005, failed. According to an unofficial tally, the resolution had support from about 5.2 percent of the voting shares, while 4.7 percent abstained. MacKerron said getting more than 3 percent ensures the resolution will be on the ballot next year.