Coca-Cola’s plan to increase recycling globally isn’t the company’s first sustainability effort, but it might be its most ambitious
In an effort to recycle the equivalent of one package for every package it sells, Coca-Cola has had to think strategically about its relationship with consumers, partners and even competitors.
Eliminating waste on our sidewalks, parks and beaches and in the world’s oceans and rivers starts with education. Education helps people know what, how and where to recycle in a way that doesn’t contaminate the recycling stream. People also need to be inspired and confident in the belief that by engaging in the simple act of recycling, they are helping to reduce waste.
But companies committed to reducing waste must work hard behind the scenes, using smarter manufacturing and sourcing strategies, to increase the sustainability of their products. They have to figure out how to use materials in the best possible way the second and subsequent times around.
When The Coca-Cola Company announced its World Without Waste initiative last January, it set out on one of its most ambitious sustainability efforts yet. The goal: to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030. The strategy: to design packaging to be 100 per cent recyclable and use more recycled and renewable materials across an expanding portfolio of products; to partner with local communities, NGOs, industry and consumers to collect and recycle packaging and increase recycle rates; and to collaborate with NGOs, governments and other partners to find solutions to the problem of marine litter.
“One of the things that’s really exciting about World Without Waste is that it is led from the top down,” says Sarah Dearman, Sustainable Packaging Program Director for The Coca‑Cola Company in North America. “As a company, we recognize that our packaging, just like with any other consumer product, is part of the problem, and we want to be part of the solution. We believe our packaging is valuable and has a life beyond its first use. We want to make sure everything we put in the marketplace is recovered so it can be reused again and again. We believe it’s the right thing to do for our planet and our communities.”
For starters, Coca-Cola plans to make all its packaging recyclable by 2025. In most places around the world, including Canada, about 99 per cent of Coca-Cola’s packaging is already recyclable, and Coca-Cola is working with its partners and suppliers to find solutions for the remaining 1 per cent. But for the plan to work, Coca-Cola must help communities get the packaging back into the system and ensure the materials are reused to make new bottles or other products. Coca-Cola itself aims to make 50 per cent of its packaging from recycled content by 2030.
Different strategies will be required in different parts of the globe. By some measures, Canada has a head start. According to the latest numbers from the Canadian Beverage Association, Canada has a national average recovery rate of 75 per cent for beverage containers. “That’s one of the higher recovery rates for beverage containers around the world,” says Dearman.
Certainly, the company is not starting from scratch. Coca-Cola has the advantage of having already undertaken many large-scale sustainability initiatives. Through 2017, the company reduced its carbon footprint by 17 per cent in Canada. It used 1.6 million kilograms less plastic resin, in part through strategies like adopting an innovative new mouthpiece design for its Powerade sports drink. The new mouthpiece lightens the bottle by 9 per cent, increases the recyclability of the package and reduces the amount of energy used in the manufacturing process. The company also developed PlantBottle, the first fully recyclable PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle made with up to 30 per cent plant-based material. Most recently, Coca-Cola developed a handle for the 2.63-litre Simply juice container that’s 100 per cent recyclable—a first in Canada.
In another major sustainability initiative, Coca-Cola has made a commitment to be 100 per cent water neutral by 2020, returning the equivalent of all the water it uses for its beverages back to nature. In Canada, the company is on track to reach its goal.
“Innovation is key to us achieving our goals,” says Dearman. “We’re always looking at new technologies that help us deliver our beverages in more efficient ways and offer more opportunities for consumer customization and personalization.” One pilot launched earlier this year in the United States is the Dasani PureFill, which allows consumers to fill their own reusable bottles at dispensers. Dearman says the company will look for opportunities to make innovations like this available in Canada. Other pilots will be rolled out during the lifespan of World Without Waste.
Some strategies for improving recycling rates are less about innovation and more about infrastructure. “Twinning the bin” is an essential ingredient for the success of World Without Waste. “Anywhere there’s a trash bin, there has to be a well-marked recycling bin right next to it,” says Dearman. “People want to recycle. I personally believe people want to do the right thing, so we just have to make it easier and more accessible for them so they know exactly what to recycle and where.” Some things are trickier to explain than others. For example, although PlantBottle packages are made partly from plants instead of petroleum, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions, they are not compostable, so it’s still important to recycle them.
While World Without Waste will focus its efforts primarily on the company’s own bottles, cans and caps made from glass, PET plastic or aluminum, it includes all packaging, regardless of whether or not it comes from Coca-Cola. “We all have a role to play,” says Dearman. “It’s not something we can do on our own; it’s something we have to work together on to achieve a world without waste.”