In the aftermath of shutting down its joint venture recycling plant, Coca-Cola Co. is reorganizing its own recycling division and looking for new people to head up that operation.
Plastics News obtained a copy of an internal Coca-Cola memo circulated May 6 that said the company has initiated a reorganization of its recycling operations and set up an interim structure, and will search for directors for its PET and used beverage cans recycling operations.
Yet many sources have said they remain skeptical that Atlanta-based Coke can reopen the bottle-to-bottle, food-grade plant in Spartanburg, S.C., which closed in March. Sources said the plant's technology is not compatible with newer lightweight bottles used by soft drink and water bottle companies.
Some of the bottles are just flying off the line and all they have left for recycling are the necks and bottoms, said one recycling company president.
Another executive, Stamford, Conn.-based Nestlé Waters North America Inc. CEO and President Kim Jeffery, said that while he's not familiar specifically with the Spartanburg plant or the problems that caused it to shut down, lightweight bottles can cause problems for PET reclaimers if they are not using the right technology.
They do cause problems in plants with older technology for processing, said Jeffery. But lightweight bottles are here to stay, and those companies need to find a better way to recycle the bottles.
Recyclers are also concerned that Coke's troubles could create a backlash and make some companies wary of using recycled PET, particularly for food-grade applications.
They have created a wave of uncertainty in the industry, said one recycling official. There is now some distrust of post-consumer resin and the idea of turning it back into bottles. I think if I were a packaging or bottle company owner, it would be a wake-up call to me as to whether it is time to hedge and maybe not put all my eggs in one basket.
The plant, known as NURRC, is a joint venture between Coke and United Resource Recovery Corp. LLC.
Recyclers are also angry about Coke's statements that blamed the supply of material for the plant's troubles, when the reality is that there are nearly 20 plants in the U.S. now making food-grade PET and several more coming open this year, they said.
In some of their comments particularly where they blame the quality of the incoming material it sounds like they are trying to bring the industry down, said one recycling executive. There is no problem with the incoming raw material. But their comments cast aspersions on the rest of the industry.
Indeed, those aspersions and their potential backlash spurred the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers to issue a statement that said the recent struggles at the Coca-Cola and NURCC facility appear to have made few overall waves.
Record-high bale prices indicate that [post-consumer resin] remains a hot commodity.
Recyclers also are concerned that Coca-Cola's commitment to recycling will diminish as the company moves more toward bottles made with PET resin derived from plants, not petroleum.
At the end of the day, you still need to recycle PET that's made from plants, said another recycling executive. Everyone knows that they've been talking about bottle-to-bottle recycling, and that they're really not interested in it. If they were really serious about using recycled content, wouldn't they be creating demand for it?
George Dreckmann, recycling coordinator for the city of Madison, Wis., agreed in a comment he posted April 19 on the GreenYes Internet discussion forum, which is affiliated with the GrassRoots Recycling Network.
It was obvious [that], absent providing a financial incentive to improve recovery or making a big boost in education or recycling-away-from-home capacity, this effort of setting up a new plant in the eastern third of the country was not going to be a worthwhile investment, wrote Dreckmann, a former board member of the National Recycling Coalition Inc.
If Coke wanted to get their hands on more [PET] without raising prices, boosting education or investing in recycling-away-from-home infrastructure, then they should have built this plant on the West Coast to capture the material that was being exported.
The internal Coke memo that outlines the recycling reorganization was sent to more than 60 employees by Alain Robichaud, vice president of operations of Coca-Cola Enterprises, the company's bottling and distributing business unit.
Robichaud's memo said he will continue to directly oversee Coca-Cola's interest in the NURRC joint venture.
It is important for us to communicate the interim organizational responsibilities to ensure we have focus on our key recycling objectives which the memo said are to recover our packaging footprint, educate and support customers and consumers [and] recycle our materials while building a sustainable recycling business.
The memo said former Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. aluminum recycling executive Steve Campbell who joined Coca-Cola after InBev bought the St. Louis brewer will head the used beverage can operations; and Gary Wygant, who used to head UBC operations, will head the PET recycling operations during the interim period.
Damian Basset, who heads the company's Canadian recycling initiatives, will also lead recovery development initiatives during the interim period.
Neither Robichaud nor NURCC/ URCC officials responded to emails asking for comments on the reorganization or the current status of efforts to reopen the plant. Scotts Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle platform for Coca-Cola, had told PN earlier that the plant would reopen later this summer.
Vitters did not respond to a request to talk about the company's sustainability and recycling efforts, after initially suggesting he wanted to discuss those topics.
Although Coca-Cola and Vitters both have asserted the company can restart the joint venture plant with new equipment currently being designed to alleviate the problems, others aren't so sure.
This [plant closing] does not come as a surprise to me, said Dreckmann. They did everything wrong, which indeed shows that their real interest was not in increasing plastic beverage container recovery, but in cleaning up their image.
PET recycling consultant and longtime industry veteran Jean Bina said she doesn't think Coke can reopen the NURRC plant using the current equipment.
I've been expecting that plant to go down for the last two to three years, she said, because the technology isn't the right one for PET recycling.
I think the technology has a few flaws, Bina said. I think they have to tear it out and bring in different equipment.
Technology at the NURRC plant is based on dissolving contaminants off the surface of the bottle.
But as companies make the wall thickness of bottles thinner, the process technology in PET technology and URRC technology are working against each other because the sides are so thin, Bina said.
It just dissolves everything, or what's left behind has a bulk density that isn't conveyable, she said. It also doesn't handle low melts very well. The efficiency and changes in processing for PET bottles aren't going to wait for URRC to catch up.
Regardless of what ultimately happens with the Spartanburg plant, recycling industry executives hope the result will force companies to be more accountable going forward.
People need to say what they're going to do, then do what they said they were going to do, said Byron Geiger, president of Custom Polymers PET LLC in Athens, Ala., whose new wash line will triple the firm's PET washing capacity when it starts up around June 1. People have to be accountable for what they do and not just make claims.