Coca-Cola Co. is making some big commitments to help boost the PET recycling rate.
Consider some of the superlatives:
* The $45 million recycling plant that Coke is helping to finance in Spartanburg, S.C., will be capable of recycling 100 million pounds of PET per year, making it the world's largest.
* The plant is part of a $60 million plan that Coke says will help it recycle 100 percent of the PET it uses in the United States.
* Two of Coke's top recycling executives now tell Plastics News that the Spartanburg plant is the first of several that Coke intends to build in the United States.
* In addition, they say Coke will have 35 recycling collection centers by the end next year, which will help the company recycle all the materials generated by its manufacturing and bottling operations.
What's going on?
First of all, it's clear PET's slumping recycling rate has been a serious problem. The U.S. PET container recycling rate dropped from nearly 40 percent in 1995 to below 20 percent in 2002, and it's just starting to inch up again. The volume of PET being recycled is going up, but the recycling rate has suffered as a result of an explosion of PET in single-serve soda, water and sports drinks - all big markets for Coke.
The bottled-water market, in particular, has come under fire from environmentalists. Their criticism is gaining traction in some city halls and state legislatures. If Coke didn't take action, it risked losing business.
Second, it looks like Coke is joining the latest wave in corporate environmental responsibility. We've seen Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Home Depot Inc., General Electric Co. and others take ambitious environmental stances. Coke belongs in that league, and now it has stepped up to the plate.
Still, we've seen Coke make some missteps in the past on PET recycling. Back in 1990, Coke announced plans to use repolymerized PET in its bottles; then it quietly backed away from the commitment. In 2000, the company signaled plans to use 10 percent recycled PET in its bottles - another goal the company has failed to reach consistently.
Perhaps the problem is that Coke has set its goals too high. After all, Coke is in the beverage business, and using recycled PET has to make business sense. But a skeptic might argue Coke has been more interested in the attention it gets from setting lofty recycling goals, and less committed to following through and reaching them.
The easiest way for Coke to boost the PET recycling rate would be to publicly come out in favor of new and expanded bottle-deposit programs. The recycling rate would immediately leap forward, and recyclers would have access to a clean stream of material that Coke - and others - could use in a wide variety of applications. But that's unlikely to happen, so perhaps this is the next best option.
Coke is taking responsibility for the growing volume of valuable PET that's ending up in landfills. As usual, we'll be watching to see if this is real progress for plastics recycling, or just another public relations exercise.