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The red giant's plastic problem

by Theresa Crysmann Tuesday, Jun. 14, 2022 at 3:22 PM

A tattered Coca-Cola flag flutters on the beach of Ixia on Rhodes: every year, the beverage company produces more than 100 billion single-use plastic bottles. Many of them end up in the sea...In a few years, there is likely to be more plastic swimming in the oceans than fish.

The red giant's plastic problem

By Theresa Crysmann

[This article published on June 5, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Warum Coca-Cola als größter Plastikverschmutzer der Ozeane gilt.]

A tattered Coca-Cola flag flutters on the beach of Ixia on Rhodes: every year, the beverage company produces more than 100 billion single-use plastic bottles. Many of them end up in the sea.

In a few years, there is likely to be more plastic swimming in the oceans than fish. Coca-Cola lids and bottles wash up particularly frequently on beaches around the world. The megacorporation is fine-tuning its green image - without much success so far.

For almost half a century, it has been fizzing and splashing when it is turned: The PET plastic bottle will turn 50 next year, but the beverage industry's former all-purpose weapon has long since become its biggest image problem. One of the market leaders in particular has to contend with bad press and increasing pressure from politicians and society.

Although the Coca-Cola Group, with its soft drink and water brands from Coke to Apollinaris to Capri-Sun, has lower sales than its competitor Pepsi, the global plastic problem seems to be primarily a red and white one.

For the fourth year in a row, the "Break Free From Plastic" initiative crowned the effervescent producer the world's worst plastic polluter in 2021. A look at the world's coasts shows what that means in concrete terms.

On beaches in 45 countries, volunteers from the initiative found a total of around 330,500 individual pieces of plastic waste: 20,000 of these came from bottles and lids from the Coca-Cola range - more than from Pepsi, Unilever and Nestlé combined. And in terms of littering, the cola group also took home the negative record for the umpteenth time: No other manufacturer made it to the shores of 39 countries.

But what washes up on the shores is just a sample of the masses of trash floating in the oceans. There are already up to 199 million tons of plastic floating there - 99 percent of it below the water surface, where it is the undoing of numerous marine animals.

Caught in the drink holder: A gannet and a trout are stuck in plastic containers for brewing cans. In the sea and on the beach, plastic waste becomes a deadly risk for many animals.

Plastic waste as a hazard: Unlike paper waste or food scraps, plastic waste does not decompose but crumbles apart. Large pieces of plastic turn into small ones - even in the ocean, where turtles, fish and crabs often mistake them for their natural food. For many marine animals, this is a mistake that causes them to starve to death with plastic-filled stomachs, damages their digestive tracts, or hinders their ability to swim. In addition, around one million seabirds die each year after eating plastic parts or becoming entangled in them. And humans are not spared either: studies show that up to a third of fish caught for consumption are contaminated with plastic. If the crumbs are too small to see with the naked eye, they end up on the table and in the stomach along with the fish fillet. The tiniest particles can even penetrate body cells. Little research has been done into the health consequences of this, but some experts, including the European Food Safety Authority, are concerned.

Around 14 million tons of new plastic waste are currently being added every year. That's equivalent to at least two garbage trucks per minute, calculates the marine conservation organization Oceana. Although the United Nations is planning binding targets to combat the plastic flood, it is still steadily swelling.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch: The world's largest garbage patch is floating in the North Pacific. It consists almost exclusively of plastic waste and is estimated to cover up to 15 million square kilometers - in extreme cases, it is four times the size of Germany.

As early as 2050, the amount of plastic waste in the oceans could exceed that of fish by weight. One of the main reasons for this is that although many regions have hardly any functioning waste management systems - let alone deposit systems - more and more plastic products are being produced. Coca-Cola is no exception.

The American beverage giant puts three million tons of plastic packaging into circulation globally every year. This corresponds to around 200,000 new plastic bottles per minute. Nevertheless, the company's sustainability motto is "A world without waste."

Four years ago, Coke Group CEO James Quincey proclaimed this goal, thereby committing not only his own company, but also competitors and consumers. The concrete steps taken within the company, however, are less ambitious than the slogan suggests.

James Quincey has been at the helm of the Coca-Cola Group since 2017: his predecessors failed with their recycling promises.

Starting in 2030, the company plans to take back one for every bottle sold to recycle. What sounds committed, however, seems to be mainly due to coercion by lawmakers in Europe.

For example, the EU stipulates that from 2029 at least 90 percent of all plastic bottles must be taken back anyway. According to Coca-Cola, this has long since been achieved in Germany, where 97 percent of the company's own bottles are returned, most of them even with lids.

To encourage more to come, the Group has been printing "Leave me at it" on the latest generation of its beverage lids throughout Europe for several months now. With the help of a thin plastic bar, these are now supposed to stay on the neck of the bottle when drinking. This, too, is a response to EU requirements that ban loose plastic lids from mid-2024.

Coke and Co. bottles will soon only be available with firmly attached lids: "A cycle is only closed if it runs 100 percent smoothly. That's why this measure is also worthwhile in order to get back the lids that still end up in the area," says Stefan Kunerth, Technical Manager at Coca-Cola Western Europe.

The bottles of Coke and Co. will soon only be available with firmly attached lids: "A cycle is only closed if it runs 100 percent smoothly. That's why this measure is also worthwhile in order to get back the lids that still end up in the area," says Stefan Kunerth, Technical Manager at Coca-Cola Western Europe. (Source: Coca-Cola)

In other European countries, however, the recycling hurdle for plastic bottles remains daunting. Fewer than half of EU countries even have deposit systems, and many empty bottles end up in incinerators, hedgerows - or, via detours, in the sea.

Outside Europe, the situation is even bleaker. On a global average, Coca-Cola sees only a small percentage of its single-use plastic bottles recovered. For the corporation, that's a problem.

A question of feasibility

That's because the company's second major sustainability promise is for the ingredients in its plastic bottles: From 2030, every new bottle globally is to be made of at least half recycled plastic. But this plan can only be implemented if enough Coca-Cola bottles end up in recycling plants worldwide. But that's not what's happening at the moment.

A woman in Dhaka spreads cleaned and cured plastic chips out to dry: Coca-Cola is hoping for a big increase in sales in the emerging country. The plastic problem is already big there. There are no deposit systems.

From 2025, Coca-Cola only wants to produce packaging that can be completely recycled - currently, the company's share of recyclable packaging is 90 percent. The problem is that there are probably too few deposit systems to get enough bottles back for recycling. This is a dilemma into which the Coca-Cola Group has probably maneuvered itself.

Lobbying and penance

For decades, the company has invested a lot of money and effort to prevent mandatory deposit systems in numerous countries - sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. Not long ago, this was also the unofficial strategy in Europe.

A year before the CEO would announce his vision of a "world without garbage," an internal document from Coca-Cola's Brussels EU office surfaced: "Fight back," was the instruction for the corporate lobbyists - fight back with the highest priority. Against what? A foreseeable introduction of deposit systems in all member states. The same strategy applied to EU plans for higher take-back and recycling rates and minimum quantities for value-added bottles.

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The strategy document was intended only for Coca-Cola employees: opposition to possibly mandatory deposit systems as well as recycling and reusable requirements was at the top of the lobbyists' list.

The strategy document dated from 2015 and, as expected, caused a furor when it surfaced in 2017. Coca-Cola insisted at the time that the document had long since ceased to reflect the group's policy direction.

Two years later, in 2019, a leaked audio recording from the U.S. city of Atlanta showed a representative of one of Coca-Cola's recycling partners successfully fending off a deposit system for the U.S. city on behalf of the beverage company. Recycling yes, but not via a price surcharge on the bottles.

"Deposit systems require retailers to set up a take-back infrastructure," explains Thomas Fischer, head of circular economy at Deutsche Umwelthife. Many large bottlers have no desire to do this. Coca-Cola, when asked, says: "We have always tried to support the introduction of collection systems where it makes sense."

At Deutsche Umwelthilfe, Thomas Fischer analyzes companies' recycling promises, among other things. "You have to be measured by deeds and deliver," he says. "We can't see that at Coca-Cola."

Fischer doesn't want to let that stand. "They would prefer not to take any responsibility at all for the beverage containers they sell," Fischer says. Where Coca-Cola has come out in favor of deposit systems, he says, these are in any case prescribed by law or are unavoidable.

In countries where there is no legal pressure, there is not much left of the promises, says Fischer. Yet it was the effervescent company itself that once established the deposit idea in America.

Reverse role of the deposit pioneer

For a Coke in a glass bottle, thirsty Americans had to pay half the price of the drink as a deposit on top. As a result, 96 percent of bottles were returned to the filler as early as 1948. With the switch to cheaper plastic bottles in the 1950s, the company wound up its successful system again.

The containers no longer had any economic value for Coca-Cola as a manufacturer. The invention of the PET bottle in the early 1970s was to escalate the growing waste problem. But the corporation sought to place the responsibility for this on consumers.

In television commercials from the time, the Coca-Cola co-financed organization "Keep America Beautiful" compared Americans to pigs and, in the face of growing mountains of garbage, let a silent tear run down the cheek of an indigenous man.

At the same time, lobbyists for the beverage manufacturer in the U.S. worked against environmental protection laws and new deposit systems. Decades later, the lack of return systems was to trip up Coca-Cola itself repeatedly. And seem to be doing so to this day.

Many broken recycling promises

In the early 1990s, Coca-Cola made a similarly bombastic announcement of a "world without waste": its own plastic bottles were to be made of a quarter recycled material by the end of the decade. In 1991, Coca-Cola actually introduced such bottles in some markets - but three years later, it stopped again. For cost reasons, according to the company.

Subsequent recycling promises were also not kept: Instead of 10 percent recycled content in every U.S. bottle by 2005, the company only managed 4 percent. The next promise, made in 2008, to break the 25 percent mark by 2015, was also not kept: three years after the target year, the share was 9 percent. It seems reasonable to assume that Coca-Cola did not get back enough of its own bottles due to a lack of deposit systems.

In the yard of a recycling company that specializes in bottles: Coca-Cola is one of the group of beverage producers that jointly operate the factory.

Without enough of its own recycled pellets, the company would have had to source comparable material externally. However, the high demand for recycled raw plastic from various industries and the low supply make such purchasing trips very expensive.

Even the world's largest bottle recycling plant, which Coca-Cola had built in 2009 in the U.S. state of South Carolina, did not provide any relief: two years after it opened, the factory had to be temporarily shut down. The most important thing was missing: the bottles.

Disposable, reusable, aberrant? Glass bottles for refilling were once the norm; today, disposable plastic bottles dominate. Globally, the share of refillable glass and plastic bottles in Coca-Cola's sales was recently less than 25 percent - and the company wants to break this mark again in 2030. However, this means that three-quarters of the 121 billion bottles sold by the company each year are non-refillable, single-use plastic bottles. Instead of being cleaned and reused in filling plants, at best they are turned into plastic pellets for new bottles. However, many recyclable plastic bottles do not make it back into the material cycle and end up in nature or in waste incineration plants - according to the Federal Environment Agency, 53 percent of all plastics collected in Germany were recently incinerated.

Europe also lacks recyclate

Recently, Coca-Cola has been actively promoting the introduction of deposit systems in at least some countries, most recently in the Netherlands and Great Britain, among others. Be it because of increasing pressure from society and politics, as Thomas Fischer suspects, or because of the lack of recycled material.

The granules that dreams are made of: Only when a bottle also becomes a bottle again does the recyclable material cycle close. If the high-quality recyclate flows into less valuable products such as sweaters, the gap in bottle production must be filled by new material.

Just a few days ago, however, two Swiss scientists published a study that is likely to put a serious damper on Coca-Cola's latest sustainability plans. In it, Catharina Bening and Sebastian Kahlert of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich state that even in Europe, which is quite deposit-friendly, there is nowhere near enough recyclate available to fulfill the promises of the largest plastic producers.

In addition to the promises made by Coca-Cola, they also took the sustainability strategies of Adidas, Ikea and H&M as a basis. The study shows that in order to meet the targets of all the companies evaluated by 2025, the production of recycled plastic granulate would have to be increased by more than half. "You don't get plastic recycled through incantations alone," the researchers warn.

Reusable is the trump card

But even if the Coca-Cola Group succeeds for the first time in implementing its plans for recycling single-use plastic bottles: The company cannot shake off the greenwashing accusation.

"Recycling is good, waste avoidance through reuse is better," says Thomas Fischer, head of circular economy at Deutsche Umwelthilfe. He is critical of Coca-Cola's continued focus on single-use plastic bottles.

Not all plastic bottles have a short life (symbol image): Some are designed as reusable bottles that can be reused up to 25 times. Returnable glass bottles, however, can be refilled twice as often.

"The energy required for the constant re-production of single-use plastic bottles is high, and each recycling process results in the loss of material that must be replaced with virgin material. There is no such thing as an infinite recycling cycle," Fischer said.

According to Fischer, the fact that the beverage company nevertheless prioritizes single-use plastic and continues to thwart reusable solutions shows how transparent the company's sustainability promises really are.

"Coca-Cola is still the problem and far from a real solution." If the company is serious about waste reduction, he says, it needs to make regional bottling plants and returnable bottles with deposits the standard.

No move away from single-use plastic

A worthwhile proposal, then, given recycling targets that seem barely achievable? No, said Coca-Cola's sustainability chief Bea Perez as early as 2020 at the World Economic Summit in Davos. That's because consumers still wanted plastic bottles, a preference that had to be bowed to: "As corporations, we won't survive if we don't accommodate consumers," Perez said at the time.

Coca-Cola Germany's headquarters on the banks of the Spree River in Berlin: every type of packaging has its justification, they say.

Stefan Kunerth, technical director at Coca-Cola Western Europe, points out that the concepts of single-use and reusable plastic may also be outdated by now. "Recyclable PET bottles are simply no longer single-use bottles if we recycle them multiple times," he finds. In addition, he says, the company is in the process of ecologically optimizing every type of packaging.

Ultimately, however, Kunerth also points to the consumer. "The consumer decides for himself what is the most suitable packaging for his needs." The customer is king. And Coca-Cola 2022 may be the world's biggest plastic polluter for the fifth year in a row.

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