Coca-Cola Co. made some waves Jan. 21 when Chief Sustainability Officer Bea Perez told BBC News that the company wasn't prepared to abandon single-use plastic containers.
She said that switching to aluminum or glass would increase the company's carbon footprint. But she didn't stop there. She said consumers like lightweight, resealable PET bottles and said that dropping PET would hurt sales.
"Business won't be in business if we don't accommodate consumers," Perez said. "So as we change our bottling infrastructure, move into recycling and innovate, we also have to show the consumer what the opportunities are. They will change with us."
The position isn't new. Coke has been saying nice things about plastics for a long time. But the pronouncement made headlines anyway. I suspect that's in part because Coke has a bad reputation in the environmental community. The company is one of the world's biggest users of plastic packaging. Coke makes 110 billion single-use plastic bottles annually.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Coke CEO James Quincey talked about progress the company has been making toward a circular economy.
"We've done an amazing job, collectively, of delivering convenience to consumers," he said. "But we have not yet made them easy to recover and reuse. Only with that bit of convenience can we truly have a circular economy that will give value to each bottle."
Greenpeace slammed Coke's announcement.
"As the most recognizable brand in the world, and the biggest plastic bottle user, Coca-Cola has a special responsibility to lead the way in reduction of single-use plastic. Its plan is full of bandages and will do very little in the way of making a meaningful impact on the amount of plastic entering our waterways and food chain," the organization said.
The fact that Coke said this in Europe also played a big role in the amount of attention that the statement generated. Europe is going big against single-use plastics.
Both Coke and its critics are talking about creating a more circular economy. But I would argue that the company isn't doing enough yet. It's been too slow to make the one big move that would make an immediate difference: to support container deposits.
Coke may be inching toward being pro-deposit, but it's not happening fast enough.
That said, we can assume that even if Coke came out in favor of deposits tomorrow, it wouldn't be enough for a big chunk of the company's critics. They'd argue that Coke had its chance a long time ago to make plastics recycling more successful, but it squandered the opportunity. Now nothing less than eliminating single-use plastic will be enough.
In some places, the anti-plastics critics already have enough political power to make that vision a reality. Last week we also saw a stunning announcement from China, which announced new policies aimed at restricting the production, sale and use of single-use plastic products.
A few years ago, I would have been skeptical of China's ability to make good on a goal like that. But after seeing the impact of the National Sword policy on the global plastics recycling market, I'm convinced that China could make this happen.
Still, I wonder, is that what the majority of the public really wants? I don't buy much soda, tea, sports drinks, juice or water in single-use plastic bottles, but plenty of people do. They vote for plastic with their checkbooks and shopping carts every day.
It's one thing to urge the public to stop using single-use plastics. Let the debate continue, and both sides can use all the science, logic or emotion that they want.
Bans, however, are another matter. Coke is right on that point: Replacing plastic with less sustainable alternative materials that would increase the world's carbon footprint would be a huge mistake.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.