Because of high public visibility, beverage firms that use plastic bottles often find themselves at the center of the packaging waste controversy and under pressure to address sustainability concerns.
But while doing that, firms like Coca-Cola Co. and Nestle Waters North America Inc. are not losing sight of the broader picture.
``Packaging is just part of a holistic look at what sustainability is all about,'' said Kim Jeffery, president and chief executive officer of Nestle Waters North America in Greenwich, Conn.
``Fifty-five percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the resins we purchase, so reducing the amount of resin in our bottles is the No. 1 thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprint,'' said Jeffery, who spoke at the Sustain '08 conference, held Nov. 5-7 in Chicago.
Nestle next year will reduce the amount of packaging in its half-liter PET bottles by 20 percent, to 9.8 grams, Jeffery announced at the event. That is up from the 15 percent reduction it previously had planned for 2009. And although that move is essential, real sustainability requires firms to be responsible for much more than that, he said.
``You have to look at the impact of sustainability up and down your value chain,'' Jeffery said. ``Our company is responsible for not only what goes on in our four walls, but for what happens at the end of life and for the actions of everyone [else] in the value chain.
``You have to build a corporate culture where everyone is encouraged to make sustainable decisions. The best thing you can do is make smart long-term investments on sustainability. Your company will be better positioned in the long-term,'' he said.
Striking a similar chord was Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging, environment and water resources at Coca-Cola in Atlanta. ``Using less materials [in bottles] is the biggest and easiest way to drive out costs'' and reduce resin use, he said. But, he, too, cautioned of the need to look beyond that.
``We can super-reduce and lightweight bottles, but if we do that, we might have to increase secondary packaging,'' Vitters said.
Companies must look at the overall picture of what's best in terms of their entire packaging footprint, he said. He mentioned transportation and delivery issues, and water and energy use as some of the other issues.
``I would caution against labeling schemes and what it might say about sustainability,'' Vitters said. ``Our overall vision is zero waste, and to eliminate any activities that don't add value.''
Nestle is under ``a lot of scrutiny today,'' Jeffery said. ``There is a tough mix of social and environmental challenges to our business,'' he said. ``But it is engaging us to reach for a higher level of sustainability.
``Our goal is to think broadly about what sustainability means and incorporate that into our businesses. We have to look at sustainability as survival.''
At the same time, beverage companies are being held accountable for the low recycling rate of PET containers 23.5 percent in 2006 and pressured to help collect more of the containers they sell.
For its part, Nestle has set a goal to more than double the industrywide recycling rate of PET to 60 percent by 2018, and Coca-Cola has pledged to recycle 50 percent of the aluminum and plastic beverage containers it sells by 2020.
In addition, Coca-Cola and United Resource Recycling Corp. just launched a food-grade PET recycling joint venture in Spartanburg, S.C., that opened the week of Nov. 10, with initial capacity to recycle 50 million pounds. A second line is planned for the second or third quarter, Vitters said. The operation is Coke's sixth and the world's largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant.
Coca-Cola also has become heavily involved in event recycling, particularly at NASCAR races and, in a partnership with the National Recycling Coalition, to provide grants for communities to buy recycling bins.
Most beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and Nestle, emphasize that they can provide the impetus to increase recycling, but insist they can't boost rates single-handedly. Both firms oppose bottle deposit bills, but have different approaches on how to reach those higher rates.
``We should be mandating recycling of packaging material from the home,'' Vitters said. Consumers must ``ensure that packaging material ends up in the recycling bin,'' he said. But he said he believes consumers need some type of incentive to make that happen.
He points to the RecycleBank program, in which Coke is an investor, as a program that has increased household participation in recycling as well as the amount of material collected.
``We need to treat waste as a utility and charge for waste,'' Vitters said. ``Market economics will drive people to recycle. But it is difficult politically because it looks like a tax.''
Though states with bottle deposits have substantially higher collection rates, Coca-Cola still ``endorses a voluntary system'' for collection. ``We need to incentivize the collection of available material at curbside,'' Vitters said.
Nestle, also opposed to expanded bottle bills, supports ``comprehensive recycling of all containers in this county,'' Jeffery said.
``If you are serious about recycling, that still will only get you 50 percent of the containers out there,'' Jeffery said. ``I am for expanding [recycling] to all containers and that can't be done with the current [bottle deposit] system. It will take everyone who makes plastics and uses plastics and local governments to come together to have comprehensive recycling of containers whether it is beverage bottles or shampoo.
``We all have skin in this game,'' Jeffery said. ``We need all companies, municipal governments and citizens committed to getting these materials back. We are not getting enough of them. That is bad for business, bad for the environment and wasteful.
``Why would we want to waste them and landfill them?''
Sustain '08 was co-organized by Plastics News and the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.