Coca-Cola Co., the elephant behind the curtain in recycling circles, has undergone a transformation on recycling. It's a change that's worth watching.
A few years ago, the company seemed to see itself mainly as a marketer of soft drinks, and not a company with any real responsibility for its packaging, particularly its increasingly popular PET bottles.
But now, listen to some of the language the company uses to talk about the problems of falling PET recycling rates.
“Two out of three PET containers being thrown away means we need to be more focused. If working with environmental groups who have traditionally targeted us helps us do better, then we are committed to doing that.”
That comes from Coke's environmental manager and point man on recycling, Ben Jordan, during a recent PET recycling panel discussion at Plastics Encounter Atlanta.
Coke no longer simply trots out arguments that soft drinks have the most recyclable packaging in the United States, a statement that ignores the nation's falling recycling rates. Environmental groups have been trying to cast the problem as an issue of wasted containers and wasted natural resources. It's noteworthy that Coke is using their language to describe the problem.
Consider also Jordan's explanation for the decline in rates:
“When you look at how beverage container recycling has evolved over the last 30 years, the past debate about recycling has been about policy approaches. A lot of debate over bottle bills and nonbottle bills. … That adversarial or confrontational situation has resulted in some real stalemates. And, probably, [that is] part of the reason why recycling has leveled off a little bit, particularly in the last few years.”
Jordan also makes other interesting points: Coke has lightweighted each of its packages by 40 percent since their introductions, which clearly conserves natural resources and saves Coke money. But a lighter bottle means less material collected, and less revenue, for plastic recyclers.
I don't want to overstate my point. There are still vast differences between what Coke and environmental groups and recyclers see as the solution.
Coke favors education to get consumers to put more containers into curbside programs and targeted recycling at major events. Many environmentalists would prefer some kind of container-deposit system.
But Coke is light years ahead of rival PepsiCo Inc. Coke is paying a premium to boost recycled content, and now uses 10 percent recycled PET in three out of four of its North American bottles. By contrast, Pepsi gives no sense in its public statements that it understands the problem or has any similar level of commitment to address it.
Critics of Coke point out that the company hasn't really spelled out what it will support to increase container recycling significantly. And the company remains mum on what it will do once it gets all of its PET containers in North America to 10 percent recycled content.
But when you consider where the debate was two or three years ago, there have been big changes.
Steve Toloken, Plastics News' Washington-based East Coast reporter, covers plastics recycling.