ATHENS, GA. — Four years ago, the GrassRoots Recycling Network concluded its founding conference at a 4-H campground in southern Georgia with an ambitious goal: Pressure soft drink giant Coca-Cola Co. into using recycled PET in bottles.
Four years later, what began as a tiny band of volunteers seems to have bested a $112 billion American icon.
Coke publicly announced plans last month to use 10 percent recycled content in every PET bottle by 2005 and is helping to fund a study on how to bolster beverage-container recycling and reverse falling plastic-bottle recycling rates.
It is a remarkable victory for a group that began without any paid employees — it now has two — and with much less public interest in the topic of recycling than a decade ago, when Coke announced and then abandoned plans to use recycled PET in bottles.
But the Coke campaign is just a small part of the group's agenda. Its long-term goal is promoting what it sees as a more ecological lifestyle known as zero waste.
Sitting in the group's small office outside Athens, Ga., overlooking the Georgia countryside, GRRN executive director Bill Sheehan explains it this way:
"Zero waste is an alternative to the current paradigm in the waste management industry, which assumes ... that waste is inevitable, and we can manage it safely and manage it cheaply," Sheehan said. "The zero-waste goal challenges that way of thinking. ... The goal of public policy, the goal of engineering and the goal of design should be to try to eliminate waste."
What turns it from a topic of late-night, grad-school bull sessions to marketplace reality is, in Sheehan's words, the idea of producer responsibility.
Coke — and now PepsiCo Inc. — must take more responsibility for the waste their products generate, he said. It is the same idea behind the group's next big effort, to join the chorus pressuring electronics manufacturers to take responsibility for what happens to their products when they have outlived their usefulness, Sheehan said.
Sheehan believes many companies do not give enough thought to the disposal cost of their products, and they expect the government and taxpayers to bear the brunt.
"We are trying to make [Coke officials], against their will, realize that they share in responsibility for the fate of their packaging," Sheehan said. "I think they genuinely saw themselves as a marketing company."
Sheehan's group certainly has a lot more resources now. The group declines to disclose its budget and does not operate yet as an independent nonprofit group, so it is not required to file public tax returns outlining what it spends.
But it has been savvy at getting cash from foundations affiliated with media magnate Ted Turner and journalist Bill Moyers. It gradually has been able to bring in allies, like shareholder activist groups, in the fight against Coke, and has helped to start broader efforts, like Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling.
Some observers say GRRN's full-page ad two years ago blasting Coke in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal attracted shareholder groups and launched the issue into the mainstream. But that is not the whole story, Sheehan said.
"I think there are a lot of people who would say that that is the pivotal thing because it got into the mainstream, but I would argue that we had about two years of building grass-roots campaigns," he said. "We worked that stuff hard on very, very little money for a couple of years."
They built support on college campuses, convinced local governments to pass resolutions chastising Coke and got companies like "socially responsible" long-distance provider Working Assets to mention the campaign in its phone bills.
"I think an advocacy ad that is not backed up with the grass-roots activism is sterile and is not going to go anywhere," Sheehan said.
Producer responsibility remains more theory than practice, particularly in the United States — but not everywhere. Canberra, Australia, aims to eliminate its municipal landfills by 2010, and governments around the globe, especially in Europe, are more open to the concept of producer responsibility, he said.
"We need to have more emphasis on manufacturers' responsibility so that there is some kind of parity or equity between individual and corporate and government responsibility," Sheehan said. "I would say the biggest need at this point in time is for extended producer responsibility to come to the United States. It's like we have a wall around us."