North America's largest manufacturer of PET bottles for Coca-Cola Co. recently gathered employees for its second annual company-wide sustainability conference, where managers and systems technicians shared ideas about running leaner and greener, and learned more about recent developments at Coca-Cola.
Held March 29-30 at Southeastern Container Inc.'s 500,000-square-foot plant in Bowling Green, the meeting of the minds included officials from all 10 Southeastern plants. A similar conference was held in 2010 at Southeastern's Hudson, N.H., facility.
In a March 30 interview at the Bowling Green plant, John Fischer, Southeastern's general manager for the Northeast region, said the conferences have focused on three targets: reducing energy use, education and training on sustainability, and reducing the amount of waste heading into landfills from the plants.
In that sense, we're aligning with the Coca-Cola Co. and the other Coca-Cola bottlers. As we become greener in their supply chain, then [Coke] can roll that up, said Fischer, who is Southeastern's sustainability team chairman.
Headquartered in Enka, N.C., Southeastern was formed in 1982 as a privately owned company by a group of Coca-Cola bottlers. It operates as a manufacturing cooperative, supplying injection molded preforms and blow molded bottles ranging in size from 8 ounces to 2 liters to Coca-Cola bottling plants in 32 states and three Canadian provinces.
In the two years that Fischer has been its sustainability leader, Southeastern has implemented a number of energy-saving and greenhouse gas-reduction measures, as well as programs to increase efficiency, including:
* Installation of air-recovery systems on its blow molding machines.
* Lighting upgrades to several plants.
* Purchasing software to more effectively monitor energy usage in real time across the company.
Southeastern also replaced all of its corrugated cardboard preform shipping bins with reusable plastic versions with embedded radio-frequency identification tracking to prevent loss.
We're no longer buying 60,000 gaylords every year to replace the ones that wear out, and that's 3.3 million pounds of corrugated [material] avoided, Fischer said.
Employees at each plant are encouraged to collect paper and plastic scrap through the use of centralized recycling bins.
Southeastern also has worked out deals with local power companies to buy wind-generated electricity where it's available.
In 2010, those efforts paid off with state environmental awards for Southeastern facilities in Effingham, Ill.; Hudson, N.H.; and Winchester, Va.
According to awards summaries provided by state officials:
* The Effingham plant reduced energy consumption by 1.6 million kilowatt hours per year by installating an air-recovery system and diverted 288 tons of trash from landfills. Half of the energy it consumes now comes from renewable sources.
* The Hudson site reduced its carbon-dioxide emissions from freight and transportation by nearly 71 tons, eliminated 271,000 pounds of cardboard waste and saved Southeastern $380,000 overall.
* The Winchester facility saved the company $375,000 with projects to reduce energy use and waste.
The Environmental Protection Agency has recognized Southeastern's energy-saving efforts through procurement of renewable power, naming the company one of its Green Power Partners.
Fischer said efforts are under way at several Southeastern plants to encourage local residents and businesses to reduce their environmental impact. The Effingham plant sponsored an electronic waste-reduction drive where old electronic devices were collected, and Hudson factory employees have handed out recycled PET totes to participants in the state's annual Discover Wild New Hampshire Day.
John Johnson, general manager at the Bowling Green plant, credits Fischer with introducing a new dynamic into Southeastern's sustainability programs.
[Fischer's] whole approach about sharing best practices is what it's all about. He created this team, with all 10 plants represented. Routine meetings, routine conference calls. It's unbelievable, how it's grown, because he educated us, Johnson said.
Opened in 1999, the Bowling Green plant's 100 employees run four Sidel blow molding and 10 Husky injection molding machines around the clock in 12-hour shifts. The facility has a rail siding and eight resin silos.
While he would not give an exact number, Johnson said the plant produces billions of bottles and preforms and is highly automated. As he spoke, automated, guided vehicles glided among the rows of gaylords, collecting containers full of preforms and replacing them with empty gaylords as the injection lines spat out more preforms.
The Bowling Green site, which ships bottles to the lower Midwest and Ontario, is one of Southeastern's plants molding Coca-Cola's PlantBottle, which contains up to 30 percent sugar cane and molasses.
For now, the PET version of the PlantBottle is only available for Dasani-brand bottled water, but its introduction into the Southeastern system has been seamless, Fischer and Johnson said.
It was just dropped right in behind the previous non-plant resin. We were told that's how it would be. [Coca-Cola] did their homework, Fischer said.
As soon as we had it, we just had to adjust the profiles a little bit for different heat values, adjust the air a little, and off it went. It's a good-looking bottle, and we're happy to be a part of this, he said.
Coke is expanding its use of PlantBottle packaging. In 2010, more than 2.5 billion PlantBottles were available across nine countries. For 2011, that number is expected to double to more than 5 billion PlantBottle packages in more than 15 countries.
During Southeastern's sustainability conference, Coca-Cola officials were present at the Bowling Green plant, but declined to be interviewed.
It's been a year since Coca-Cola underwent a major shift in its bottling operations.
In February 2010, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. announced it would acquire Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Enterprises' North American bottling business for $12.3 billion.
In exchange, CCE agreed to buy Coca-Cola Co.'s bottling operations in Norway and Sweden for $822 million, and to obtain the right to acquire 83 percent of Coca-Cola Co.'s German bottler.
Coca-Cola Co. had spun off CCE in 1986 as a separate company as part of its efforts to consolidate independent bottling groups within the Coca-Cola system.
The deal that closed in October 2010 resulted in the creation of two new businesses, Coca-Cola Refreshments USA Inc. (CCR) and Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada Ltd. (CCRC).
Coca-Cola named Brian Kelley, formerly president and general manager of North American still beverages and supply chain, to integrate parts of the new CCR.
Fischer and Johnson said the creation of CCR has proceeded smoothly from Southeastern's viewpoint.
It's been a positive for us because we've seen [Coca-Cola] selling more, Fischer said.
We had a good fourth quarter [of 2010], we had a good first quarter this year, and I think that has something to do with what they're attempting to do on price point to make the products more affordable.
Pepsi's No. 3 now, so there's something to be said for what [CCR] is doing, he added.
In a historic shift for the beverage industry, Pepsi, long the No. 2 carbonated soft drink in the United States, has fallen to third place in the category behind Coke and Diet Coke, according to industry figures.